The Secret to Self-Mastery Is Habits

A reflection by Songya Kesler, Leadership Consultant & Coach |

With the New Year brings a renewed spirit for betterment and change. You tell yourself, “This year will be different. This year will be best yet!” and while filled with hope for the greatness that awaits, you set ambitious goals and grandiose intentions.

If you listen to the intentions and goals of your friends and family, you will unsurprisingly find that they are striving for betterment: better health, better relationships, better finances. Ultimately, we are all striving to overcome our limitations, to become the best version of ourselves, and to find happiness, purpose, and fulfillment.

Even still, some of us will live lives of quiet desperation, grasping on to delusions of mediocrity. A few of us, fueled by curiosity will ask the question, “Is this life? Is this all?” And driven by an inner knowing that there is something more, will strive for freedom — we will strive for Self-Mastery.

Each day is an opportunity to begin anew, to redefine your goals, and to unlearn and relearn. I invite you to step into the intention of Self-Mastery — not merely for 2016, but for the rest of your life. It goes something like this:

This is my year of Self-Mastery. I am the author of my life and the creator of my destiny. My desires become my visions and my visions become my reality. 100% is possible 100% of the time. There is no place I cannot go, no task I cannot do, and no person I cannot be. I stand as the source of authenticity, discipline, and vision. I am the Master of my body, my heart, my mind, and my soul. This is my year of Self-Mastery.

But how can you be the best possible version of yourself? How do you live to your fullest potential, reach your goals, and gracefully maneuver through life’s setbacks?

Through habits. Through the tiny, unconscious choices you make moment-by-moment and day-by-day, you shape your reality and create your future.

“We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act, but a habit.” — Aristotle

The Self-Mastery Framework

Self-Mastery is not a final destination, but an ever-expanding way of being. It begins with a vision, which acts as your compass for all actions and decisions in your life. The path may not be straight, but each step moves you towards that vision and towards a greater goal.

Once you know your vision, take an honest look at where you stand right now. This includes your daily actions, patterns, and habits. Some of your habits will be obvious while others are hidden. Identify the ones that you would like to keep or alter, and the new habits you would like to build.

  1. The Vision — What do you want? What is your vision for your life? For the world? What will be your legacy?
  2. The Visible Now — Where am I now? What are my actions, patterns, and habits that are not in line with what I say I want?
  3. The Hidden Now — What can’t I see? What is it that I don’t know I don’t know? What are my unconscious actions, patterns, and habits?

The three steps above are seemingly simple, yet immensely difficult because they are predicated on self-awareness. Your vision might change every year or month or day. But don’t let this stop you from setting a vision. Give yourself permission to change your mind. It’s OK to imagine a big house one day and a happy family the next. Eventually, what is true for you will stick and what is untrue will fade away.

It may take you years to develop the level of self-awareness necessary to fully grasp your Visible and Hidden Now. But don’t let this stop you from tying. Each attempt is an exercise for your self-awareness muscles, and each opportunity for self-reflection will make it easier to self-reflect in the future.

With a vision set and an awareness of where you stand right now, you can finally take conscious action to change your life for the better. Now you can more confidently accept the opportunities that are in line with your vision and reject those that are not. You can get rid of bad habits and replace them with new ones that will bring you closer to your goals and dreams.

The Habit Framework

A habit is a deliberate thought, feeling, or action that continues to repeat itself long after you have stopped thinking about it. They are formed with repetition, triggered by a cue, and followed by a reward. Luckily, all habits are learned and can be unlearned — or rather, re-learned.

Habits do not merely encompass external (physical) habits such as walking to work or starting your morning with a coffee. They also encompass internal (mental & emotional) habits such as judging people by their occupation or only feeling attracted to those who play with your heart. These internal habits are also known as subconscious beliefs or biases.

Our inner dialogue is also an internal habit. Do you ever find yourself overthinking or stuck in your head? That’s a habit. And like all other habits, it can be unlearned. If you have followed my story, then you know that I used to be a strong analyzer that struggled with overthinking. Amongst other practices, I adopted the habit of meditating, which eventually quieted my mind.

As a further complication, some habits are known to us (visible) and others are unknown (hidden). As truthfully seeing the Visible and Hidden Now is an exercise in self-awareness, so is accurately identifying your visible and hidden habits. You can think of habits as falling under four categories: Visible External, Hidden External, Visible Internal, and Hidden Internal.

So how do you change a habit?

Charles Duhigg, author if The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business asserts that you must first identify the habit, the cue and the reward. Then put a plan in action that begins with the same cue and ends with the same reward, but has a new habit in between. You can refer to this guide for more detail.

  1. Identify the Habit: What is the routine?
  2. Isolate the Cue: What triggers the habit? What are the location, time, emotional state, other people, and immediately preceding actions?
  3. Experiment with Rewards: What is driving the habit?
  4. Have a Plan: What new habit can you insert to satisfy the craving?

For example, I used to delay my response to some (but not all) e-mails, so I decided to investigate. After a period of observation, I realized that it did not matter who sent the e-mails, I would respond immediately if I read the e-mails in the morning before I started checking tasks off my daily to-do list.

If I read the e-mail at any other point in the day, I would delay my reply (sometimes for several days if I forgot). To solve this, I simply added “Respond to emails” as an item in my to-do list that I could only receive the satisfaction of checking off (my reward) at the very end of the day.

Let’s say you want to create a new habit instead of replacing an old one. You can apply Duhigg’s model once again, but this time you get to choose the cue and the reward.

Charles Duhigg | Click here for fullsize

To start the habit of a daily meditation practice, I wore a black hairband on my left wrist (the cue). When I was done, I moved it to my right wrist and rewarded myself with breakfast. Before bed each night, I used the hairband (now on my right wrist) as a cue to brush my teeth and wash my face. When I was done, I moved it to my left write and rewarded myself with a TV show before bed. As a side-effect, I have now developed the habit of watching TV before going to sleep, but this is not a habit I wish to change.


The foundation of everything I have stated above is self awareness. Self awareness brings attention to the Visible Now and further illuminates the Hidden Now. It will also aid you in uncovering your Hidden Internal and External Habits.

“Once you’re aware of how your habit works, once you recognize the cues and rewards, you’re halfway to changing it “ — Charles Duhigg, Author of The Power of Habit

Once you develop the skills to identify your non-serving patterns and beliefs, it will feel like uncovering gold beneath each step you take. While focused in the direction of your vision, you can ask yourself Is this who I want to be? Does this move me towards my goal? What needs to change right now?

You will develop the ability to move smoothly between action, reflection, action, reflection, etc. Like a kung-fu master who can move without light and preempt his opponents’ every move, you will become more aware and have more control over your actions, thoughts, and feelings.

Don’t forget to surrender. Mastery is a dance between forcing and allowing. Make choices, take actions, but embrace the uncertainty and leave space for surprise.

Is It Working?

You will know that your efforts are working because people will begin to follow you naturally. Others will see that you possess a quality that they want — the foresight to have a vision for you life and the know-how to set realistic goals and alter non-serving habits and actions. You will become an authentic leader because you lead without unnecessary force — you lead by simply being yourself.

Do not wait until you are depressed, cornered, and desperate to uncover your inner truths and begin the journey to your best self. Your dreams and wants are waiting to become your reality right this moment. You are the author of your life. What story will you write today?

Songya is a Leadership Consultant & Coach, based in Berlin who works with leaders to become the best version of themselves. She has an engineering MS & BS from Stanford and an MBA from Cambridge Judge. Get to know her better through her newsletter, where she shares learnings, inspiration, and meditations that address the myriad of troubles plaguing young business leaders today.

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