Stop Reading Endless Lists of Habits and Routines of Successful People

We see them everywhere everyday. “The ___ Things This Billionaire Does Before 8AM.” “The ___ Most Common Habits of Highly Successful People.” “The ____ Routines All High Performers Share.” And we read them, endlessly. I know I do. But it occurred to me recently, after scanning through yet another one of these lists, that at this point I pretty much already know what these habits/routines/rituals are before I’m enlightened by any particular list. Really successful people tend to get up early. Mindfulness is great. Working out is essential. Journaling is valuable to trap your anxieties on the page before confronting the unpredictable vicissitudes of the work day, and to set daily intentions.

For those of us who regularly visit and read websites and blogs geared toward maximizing personal performance, improving productivity, and jumpstarting a successful business, these articles and lists are ubiquitous. Personally, every morning I open my email and find at least a couple waiting for me. And, without fail, I read them, as I’m sure you do, too. Despite the title of this article, however, I am not categorically against these lists. In fact, I find them quite useful, in certain situations. However, I do think these lists can and do become problematic, and, in some cases, can cause delay and unintentionally encourage procrastination rather than actually galvanize into action or increase working efficiency.

The first problem with these lists is that they generate increasingly diminished returns. A cursory reading of several such lists reveals that there is not an infinite or infinitely varied array of habits, routines, and rituals practiced by top performers in their respective fields. There are a handful of habits that seem to be particularly common and recur almost without fail in any such list. You only need to read about these once to internalize them and choose to add or not add them to your own daily routine. Reading article after article, list after list, about the same set of habits and routines adds no value. You already know what the article or list will say.

The second problem with these lists is that they constantly operate to reroute energy from the “what” (particularly), and the “why,” to the “how.” Fixation on the “how,” on the routines that purportedly maximize productivity, or on the habits of people who have achieved great success, can, ironically, function to delay the actual act of production. For example, it’s much easier for each of us to make sure we workout in the morning, meditate for ten minutes, write in our journal for ten minutes, turn our phones off two hours before going to bed, and write killer to-do lists than it is for us to actually tackle some of the pressing, complex issues with our businesses, or to sit down and create something, or to launch a business from scratch.

The third problem with these lists is that they lend themselves to a potentially powerful self-deception. The deception is believing that it’s the daily habits and routines of top performers, of billionaires, and of the most successful entrepreneurs that directly lead to their respective successes. The reality is that we often encounter these people and their habits after they’ve achieved great success, and the daily routines these people have adopted now that they are highly successful and in a position to do so are often drastically different than the routines (or complete lack thereof) they had when doggedly pursuing their initial success. Mark Cuban slept on the floor of a cramped, crowded apartment, with his possessions in a heap, throughout his twenties. Warren Buffett spent every waking moment reading company reports and balance sheets, to the exclusion of almost everything else. The successful launch of Facebook was not a result of Mark Zuckerberg’s daily meditation, regular workouts, quality sleep, and journaling.

The point is that these habits and routines are often things that highly successful people, after achieving their success, are more effectively and deliberately able to adopt. And these are great habits to build into our daily lives. They help keep us healthy, mentally sharp, emotionally fulfilled, and spiritually balanced. These are all wonderful things. However, these things are marshalled out in problematic ways. The implicit logic is that since all highly successful people share many of these daily habits and routines, if I begin adopting these habits and routines I can put myself on the road to similar success. This is a misleading, and often simply mistaken, assessment of causation, because, while many highly successful people share these routines now, after they’ve achieved a great measure of success, the reality is that the most important thing these highly successful people share happens before they’ve achieved great success.

Highly successful people take massive action. Massive, obsessive, relentless, all-consuming action. These people pursue their goals doggedly. Their success is uncommon because the effort and commitment they put into achieving it is uncommon. Tony Robbins has said before that if you want to take the island, you need to burn your boats. If you want to achieve great success, you have to take great action. If you want results that other people are not getting, you need to do things other people aren’t doing. If you want to be the best in your field, you need to cultivate your knowledge and your skills more than everyone else. It’s very simple. And this is what highly successful people have in common. They have taken massive action, they have made deep commitments, and they have pursued their goals with profound determination.

As you achieve success, then, you begin to develop habits and routines that optimize your performance and help maximize your results.

The ultimate point here is don’t put the cart before the horse. To launch your business, to create something new, or to become the best in your field, take massive action. This is the most important thing you can do. Burn your boats. The order and nature of your daily habits and routines are secondary to simply taking massive action and committing yourself fully to what you’re doing.

And again, I’m not suggesting that these lists of daily habits and routines are useless or without value. I’m simply arguing that we should approach these lists with caution, because they’re great for people who are at a certain stage in their lives or their businesses where some energy can be diverted from the “what” to the “how.” But if you are in the beginning stages of launching a business, or if you have aspirations of being the best at what you do, or if you merely have a great idea that you want to pursue, focus on that and commit to it. There are no daily habits or routines that obviate the need for massive action and relentless pursuit of your goals. The right habits and routines can help, certainly, and add value, but if you are starting out, align the horse and the cart properly.

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