Why You Shouldn’t Live Every Day Like It’s Your Last: The Power of Habit

I’ve never been a fan of the ‘live every day like it’s your last’ adage. Aside from the rather unappealing prospect of 24 hours of existential dread, it just doesn’t add up. In fact, the very framing of this mantra ignores the reality: we do not operate in siloed, 24 hour cycles. We are the aggregated sum of all our individual days: what we do today, affects us tomorrow.

As always, The Simpsons says it best.

Ok, so if you shouldn’t live every day like it’s your last, how should you live it? In a sentence, I’d say that you should set up routines, rules, and principles for your life — to keep you on course. This isn’t to say that every day should be the same, in fact, I’m a big believer in the importance of novelty and new experiences. But decision fatigue is real.

We tend to think of willpower as a character trait, a trait that — although varying among different people — remains pretty constant at the individual level. Decision fatigue describes a phenomenon known as ego depletion: we have a finite store of mental energy for exerting self-control. Ego depletion is the reason you stick rigidly to your diet all day, and then have six Snickers when you get home. It’s the reason you stay calm under pressure all day in work, and then flip out at a friend over something trivial.

Taking a different approach, think about it like Tekken — the arcade fighting game. You start the day with a full bar of decision making capability.

Law was always my favourite.

You take a hit for every decision you make. Some decisions — deciding what to wear, for example — mightn’t seem like killer blows, but they all add up. Sure, you can get knocked out by one roundhouse kick to the face, but a lot of little jabs make an impact too. Before you know it, your health bar is red and flashing, and you’re just one decision away from an ego depletion KO.

Who knew ‘beef or salmon?’ would be the killer blow?

Learning about habits to combat decision fatigue is like learning martial arts for Tekken: if you can learn new moves and fighting sequences, you can last longer and take on bigger opponents. I feel this Tekken analogy is overstretched already, so let’s look at habits in practice.

‘What do the first sixty minutes of your day look like?’

March 2015: I wake up late, roll over to scroll through social media, and then eventually muster the will to get up. Wandering into the kitchen, I peer blindly into the fridge, trying to decide what to have for breakfast. Sitting at the kitchen table, I like a few more things in my feed, shower, and try and pull something together to wear. I stumble around my room, trying to find keys, wallet, and phone, and then stagger out the door — checking my phone to figure out what I’m at for the day.

A year ago, I didn’t really need habits. Decision fatigue wasn’t much of an issue, as I wasn’t making that many decisions. Nowadays, though, I’ve a lot more going on, and I need habits to get me through it. It’s something that no one really talks about, but I’ve found that one of the hardest things about entering the working world is really just trying to maintain my energy levels.

I started working in July 2015. Although the first few weeks flew by in a flurry of excitement, I realised that I had to do something to take hold of the day — before it took hold of me. When I got back to Dublin, I started trying different things to try and claw back my morning. This was partly prompted by listening to Tim Ferriss’ podcast, where one of the common questions for his guests is ‘What do the first sixty minutes of your day look like?’ As you can see above, my first hour wasn’t exactly inspiring. I’m proud to say that, today — after a fair bit of work and experimenting — I’m a lot closer to my ideal morning routine.

March 2016: I wake up at 7.50am (8.50 on weekends). Immediately getting out of bed, I head to the bathroom and wash up. Coming back to my room, I put on the latest episode of a podcast, complete the 7 minute workout, write in my journal, and head down to the kitchen. I crack two eggs into a bowl, whisk, and add chopped pepper, spinach, and smoked salmon. Standing at the island in my kitchen — still listening to the podcast — I eat my omelette and down my vitamin C drink. Heading upstairs, I put on a pair of dark jeans, my navy New Balances, a white or blue shirt, navy jumper, and navy coat. Picking up my keys, wallet, and phone from their usual place, I put on the alarm, lock the door, and walk to work.

Yes, I’ve a lot more going on in my morning these days then I did a year ago — but it’s mostly on autopilot. That’s the thing about ego depletion, the fix isn’t to do less things — it’s setting up your life so that you make less decisions. Sure, I took an ego depletion hit when I was trying to instill the habits. And, yes, some habits — like meditating — haven’t quite formed yet. My morning routine that exists today involved some trial and error, and I’m still working on this stuff. My nightly routine (or lack thereof) needs a lot of work, for example.

If you’re a regular reader, you might be wondering where’s the book in all this? This was a journey I’d embarked upon before coming across a particular book, but — if you’re interested I’d recommend taking a look at the The Power of Habit by Charles Duhigg. It’d probably make for a better narrative if I was in the depths of despair, totally lost without this book. But I wasn’t, so I can’t say that. What I can say is that, if you’re interested in habit forming, it’s worth checking this book out.

For a little taster, take a look at the flowchart below, based on Duhigg’s work.

So, that’s it for this week. I hope you enjoyed this post, but I’d really appreciate your feedback in the comments below. More generally, are you trying to build a new habit? Break an old one? I’d love to hear about it.

Are you interested in working with a social enterprise in this space? Keep Appy, which I founded last year, is currently operating under Enactus Trinity. The video gives a good overview of what we’re trying to solve, and I’d be happy to chat if you’d like to be involved — just drop me a message.

Ben Butler is a graduate of Trinity College Dublin, now working at Stripe. Recently bitten by the blogging bug, his posts are available on LinkedIn and Medium.

Bi-monthly posts not frequent enough for you? Follow Ben on Twitter@bengbutler.

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