You Need More Than Just Habits

Tools matter just as much to your success.

Most of us have wised up to the resolution gimmick. We know that no particular schedule or set of habits will make much of a difference. So how do people get what they want?

Tools. Maybe crude ones at first. But never underestimate their value. The right ones make all the difference.

They matter just as much as your self-discipline. Maybe more.

Friends used to make fun of my apartment. They asked why I didn’t own a couch. Or a bed. Or any other furniture. I had one kick ass office chair, though, and a wrap-around desk.

The desk came from a friend. The plywood was chipped on the edges. You couldn’t put your full weight on your elbows for very long. The whole thing was ready to be thrown out, but I didn’t care.

It was perfect for what I needed.

That wrap-around desk dominated my bedroom. Hardly anything else would fit, other than a bookshelf and a twin-sized mattress.

My roommate asked, “How do you live like this?”

A boyfriend said, “You have an inflated sense of importance.” But a desk isn’t a status symbol. Not to everyone. Fundamentally, it’s a tool. That desk helped me keep all my stuff organized. Without it, I couldn’t have survived a rigorous master’s program while teaching classes at the local tech colleges to supplement my income.

Another thing that changed my life? A home Internet connection. My first year in grad school, I’d bummed off wifi at coffee shops.

Great for meeting potential fuck buddies.

Shit for productivity.

Or I spent exhausting sessions in a campus computer lab, sitting in a chair that would make you weep from pain.

Like almost every other grad student.

Then I finally looked at my finances. Which means I decided to use my credit card to get home wifi. A few people told me it was irresponsible. But the Internet was a tool — something I couldn’t do without. Something I would have to go into debt for.

A year later, a friend would sit in her townhouse apartment and explain to me why she spent hundreds of dollars on dinnerware.

No, she didn’t need that. Dinnerware isn’t a tool, unless you’re a chef. You have to understand the difference.

Another couple I know bought an asparagus steamer.

Not a vegetable steamer. One specifically designed for asparagus. Hey, I don’t know. Maybe it could steam other stuff. But it sure as hell looked difficult to do anything other than steam asparagus.

That’s not a tool, either.

I’m not sure what an asparagus steamer qualifies as, especially if it can’t steam anything else. But I hesitate to call it a tool.

My first year on the tenure track, I still didn’t own any furniture besides a desk. A smattering of clothes. But also three monitors, and one of them rotated. It didn’t look like the house of someone making $50K a year. It looked like the temporary dwelling of a hacker.

At no point did habits ever really occur to me. I was always just wake up, and then start balancing my goals. But here’s what I’ve always thought about.

Tools.

And shortcuts.

These days, half the world gives way too much credit to habits. Wake up at 5 am. Take a cold shower. Practice mindfulness. Write in a journal. Hey, whatever works for you. We all need habits.

But you know what vastly improved my life recently? A storage shed. More specifically, a can of WD-40. Which made the doors on my shed ten times easier to open. This means I can store junk in there. You know, like Christmas presents from relatives that I’m not going to use.

I’m going to donate those gifts. Just not yet. My relatives have to forget about them first. Then I can donate them later.

Meanwhile, the shed.

Otherwise, they’d be sitting next to my bed in a pile. Driving me crazy. Making me trip over them on the way to the bathroom at midnight.

Possibly causing a broken arm.

You’re thinking, “You’re so lucky to have relatives that care about you.” Hey, only enough to give me useless crap at Christmas.

My spouse and I have had the shed for more than a year now. It came with the house we bought. We didn’t use it. Why? The doors wouldn’t open. For some reason it took us a year to realize they might just need some grease.

Problem solved. In less than 24 hours.

Benefit to my life? Immeasurable. See? Tools.

When you have a kid, habits go out the window. Tools matter more than ever. Bottles with different nipple sizes. Breast pumps. Bouncers. Play tables. Cribs. Swings. Co-sleepers. Swaddles sacks. Sleep blankets. Pacifiers.

Teething rings.

Stuffed animals that play music.

When you don’t have a kid, you think this stuff is all materialistic garbage. And then, you realize the truth.

It’s all meant for a specific purpose. To keep your kid from crying. So you can actually sleep. Or answer emails.

I’ve known successful and perfectly functional adults to fall apart after a single hour with a crying baby.

One multiple marathoner I know, a new dad, allegedly greeted his wife at the door after an afternoon with his own baby. He said, “I don’t know…I just…I can’t…” And then fell down sobbing.

All because he lacked tools.

This guy had woken up every morning at 6 am, and run 12 miles in negative-degree weather. But you know what? He had tools. He’d done the research and purchased the best gear for cold weather running.

But with a baby he’d simply said, “Nah, I got this.”

His appreciation for tools came back to him after that. He didn’t know they apply to multiple facets of your life, not just athletics.

The only habit you really need is an appreciation for tools. You have to research them. I’m continually astounded by some new tool that I should’ve known about three years ago.

Or a tool I thought was working, that wasn’t.

No single habit has ever helped me as much as a good tool. A big desk. A jumbo screen. A comfy chair. A good eyebrow pencil. A stuffed elephant that plays bedtime tunes when you pull its tail.

For sure, you can fixate on material possessions too much. Nobody needs a thousand dollar chair. Or a hundred dollar caboodle. But a nice one makes a difference, even if you lifted it from the curb.

Chairs, I mean. Not caboodles.

My 20s wasn’t so different from my sophomore year of college. Back then I lived with an amateur drug dealer as a land lord. I wrote my first novel on a dusty computer the last tenant had left in the closet. The thing didn’t even have MS Word, just some primitive word processor.

Luck. That’s what I thought. If you can believe that. I’d just severed ties with my family, and had barely a hundred dollars in my account.

I waited tables at a hipster bar.

The computer was a godsend. I’d planned on filling cheap notebooks with my writing and then typing it all out on school computers.

Now I could just write in the quiet of my small bedroom. Rented to me by a drug dealer who occasionally offered free weed.

The last tenant had also left a coffeemaker.

Pure heaven.

The first draft of my novel was pure shit. But it turned into my thesis.

Ten years later, not much had changed when you looked at my abode. I lived in an even smaller apartment. No dishwasher. No laundry on site. I washed my clothes at the Laundromat once a week or so.

But I did have three computer monitors. Despite my lack of everything else, that always makes people jealous. Especially other writers.

Someone once asked me if I was sad. “It’s just strange that you’d invest so much time and money into these other things,” she said, “And not even have a bed. Have you made the right choices?”

At the time, I slept on a yoga mat. None of that mattered. You see, now I have all the stuff my friends think I always should have. A house. Beds. Couches. You name it. My habits haven’t changed all that much. I’ve tweaked them over time. I’ve mainly invested in my tools. So forget about your habits for a little while. Focus on the the material things that might help.