12 Small Habits That Compound Into Meaningful Success and Happiness
“A man who procrastinates in his choosing will inevitably have his choice made for him by circumstance.” — Hunter S. Thompson
The myth of capturing the magic-bullet has overstayed its welcome.
“If only I stumble onto this or that milestone, I will be successful.”
“If only I had more money and possessions, I would be happy.”
That’s the wrong approach.
Nobody is successful or happy in the same way, but most people that are have a few things in common. None of these evolved without proactivity.
Both success and happiness are a byproduct of a few small things done right over a consistent period. There are two general formulas that explain this.
Success = Quality of Output x Consistency of Effort
Happiness = External Reality - Personal Expectations
After years of research and practice, I’ve narrowed it down to 12 principles.
If applied routinely, you’ll be able to balance these equations in your favor.
1. Challenge artificial limitations
“We like to think of our champions and idols as superheroes who were born different from us. We don’t like to think of them as relatively ordinary people who made themselves extraordinary.” — Carol Dweck
The human brain is the most complex structure in the known universe, and we don’t know everything about it, but we know one thing: it changes itself.
As Dweck’s research has shown, what you believe about yourself inspires action — or inaction — and that in turn determines where you end up.
If you trust that through hard work and dedication — what she refers to as a growth mindset — you can be better and accomplish more, you often will. The reverse is true, too. If you don’t — as with a fixed mindset — you won’t.
Neauroplasticity is a gift that evens the playing field. We don’t get to choose our genetic starting point, but we do get to make choices about how to live.
Talent and intelligence are not static traits. Don’t treat them like they are.
2. Aim your targets 10x higher
“All men dream, but not equally. Those who dream by night in the dusty recesses of their minds wake up in the day to find it was vanity, but the dreamers of the day are dangerous men, for they may act their dreams with open eyes, to make it possible.” — T.E. Lawrence
Elon Musk is probably the boldest entrepreneur around. The names of his companies, Tesla and SpaceX, are synonymous with the word “innovation.”
That said, one thing most people don’t know is that both companies — and Tesla in particular — consistently miss their targets. That’s their secret. Why?
Because their targets are so ridiculously ambitious that it would be near-impossible to consistently hit them in a timely manner. But it doesn’t stop them from trying that much harder, and that makes all the difference.
Go big, and be willing to fall short. Limits are pushed when they’re removed.
3. Focus your actions 10x smaller
“Have a bias toward action — let’s see something happen now. You can break that big plan into small steps and take the first step right away.” — Indra Gandhi
Although aiming high is the way ahead, it doesn’t matter unless you’re following through. That’s hard, especially when the target is big and distant. It certainly doesn’t help if you’re letting the idea of perfect hold you back.
A few decades ago, Japanese businessmen crafted a solution for this. They refer to it as Kaizen, and it roughly translates into “Continuous Improvement.”
Rather than shooting for perfection or making a big leap, they’d cut up their plan and then begin. Once in motion, they’d focus on 1% improvements.
Hypothetically, if you gained 1% daily for a year, you would get 1.01³⁶⁵ = 37.78. In short, you’d be almost 38 times better than you were at the start.
Start now, and act small. Nothing changes unless you’re doing things.
4. Start being a negative thinker
“Visualize failings, not success.” — Chris Hadfield
Hadfield is a famous astronaut. Although he worked for NASA for 21 years, he was only in space for 6 months. Where was the rest of his time spent?
Much of it was used to uncover any detail that could go wrong on a mission, so that if it did, he’d be ready to act and not be held back by fear or trauma.
This kind of psychological preparation is different from planning. Beyond a certain point, planning is a form of procrastination. Preparation is a lifeline.
Of course, most of us don’t need to be that rigorous. But we could all use mental simulations to ensure that we are better attuned to our future risks.
Life is unpredictable, but negative thinking makes it less so. Be prepared.
5. Manage attention, not time
“Control of consciousness determines the quality of life.” — Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi
Fundamentally, productivity is about being present. Nothing more, nothing less. It’s about subtracting the noise and directing attention without fault.
Csikszentmihalyi has studied happiness and human performance for 50 years, and his research has shown that what connects the two is the concept of flow.
Rather than finding ways to add more time to your life, it’s smarter to use the time you have in a more optimal way. That’s where flow comes in. It’s a mental state of complete immersion into a task: a form of intense focus.
It’s in this state of mind that high-performers are at their best, and it’s also this kind of deep attention that inspires some of the happier moments in life.
Most of us have enough hours in a day. It’s how we use them that matters.
6. Strive for impact, not output
“We don’t live in a normal world, we live under a power law.” — Peter Thiel
In the 19th century, an economist made an incredible observation. He saw that, nearly everywhere, about 80% of results came from 20% of causes.
The 80/20 rule as it’s now known loosely translates into The Power Law, a statistical trend that shows a few variables to unevenly influence results in any situation. In some cases, 50% of outcomes are nudged by 1% of causes.
Here are a few real-world examples:
- As a business-owner, you’ve added a small client every week for a year, but suddenly, you sign one large contract and it doubles your revenue.
- As an artist, you’ve put out a piece of content every day for 3 months, but one day, a single one goes viral and increases your fan-base ten-fold.
- As an employee, you’ve put in all kinds of work for a promotion, but it’s not until you solve a tough problem faced by a VP that you get the call.
Each output is not equal. Consistency is always important, but aimless production takes away from better opportunities. There should be a balance.
As a business, if your goal is revenue, maybe it’s worth taking more time and effort into securing 1 large client a month rather than 8 small ones.
The world is skewed. Quantity can work, but quality is a better use of time.
7. Say “No” to almost everything
“If it’s not a hell yes, it’s a no” — Derek Sivers
Life gives us a lot of choices. Much of the time, the danger isn’t in the missed opportunities, but in the time wasted by halfhearted commitment.
The story behind Sivers’ quote comes from a time he found himself promised at an event he didn’t feel thrilled about. It fell in that gray area where it sounded kind of fun, but it was taking away from more important work.
When it comes to diverting attention from key priorities, “Yes” should be used sparsely. A better model for making decisions is by thinking in terms of “Hell yes” or “No.” If you’re not ecstatic to do it, you should avoid it.
This is as true for relationships as it is for work. It’s one thing to push your comfort zone, it’s another to accept any random offer that’s being presented.
Most things are a waste of your time. Be deliberate in weeding them out.
8. Know what “Yes” looks like
“Life is what happens to us while we are making other plans.” — Allen Saunders
As valuable as it is to not fall into the trap of making commitments that get in our way, it’s also critical not to lose sight of what makes us feel alive.
Relationships matter, meaningful work matters, and gratitude matters.
These are universal. Beyond that, we all have our own additions. Either way, many essential things in life are often the same things we take for granted.
It’s easy to get caught up in the day to day trenches of life. There’s always a lot going on, and something important always seems to be on the horizon.
Everyone has their own priorities. You should be lucidly clear about yours.
9. Constantly adjust expectations
“Life is 10% what happens to you. 90% how you react to it.” — Charles Swindoll
There are certain parts of reality that are rigid. There will be events and occurrences that you can’t control. Dwelling on them is not a good strategy.
When sent to a concentration camp during the Second World War, psychologist Viktor Frankl observed that the people who survived weren’t always those who had endured the least amount of physical suffering.
It was those who could look beyond, and sometimes find meaning in, their situation. They knew the one thing they could control was their outlook.
Whenever you’re faced with an event that falls outside of your ideal range, you’re given some time to make one of two choices: to adapt or not.
Being able to adjust the lever of your expectations is a critical life skill.
10. Declutter your mind daily
“Build pockets of stillness into your life.” — Maria Popova
We live in an increasingly noisy world. We’re constantly overloaded with external stimuli, and it makes it harder for us to make sense of complexity.
Go for a walk, meditate, or journal. It doesn’t matter what, but finding time to clear your mind is one of the healthiest things you can do for yourself.
It also doesn’t have to take much. The average person spends nearly 2 hours a day on different social media channels. Sparing 15 to 30 minutes for a habit that will likely pay lifelong dividends shouldn’t be too great of an ask.
Everything starts and ends in the mind. That’s a good reason to treat it well.
11. Be careful about caring
“Care less, smile more.” — Anonymous
Things only matter as much as we make them matter. The universe puts no pressure on us to make ourselves care about a majority of things around us.
Here’s a reminder of a few things that generally aren’t worth attending to:
- Other people’s (unconstructive) opinions or approval
- Guilt over things that can’t be changed once done
- Pressure from societal norms outside of the rule of law
- Our own egos, irrational pride, or sense of importance
None of this is about indifference. It’s about deliberately choosing to reserve focus for what’s valuable. It’s a far more authentic and liberating way to live.
The moment we start to fuss over too many things, that’s when the value of caring diminishes. It cheapens something that’s supposed to connect us.
For the world to put you down, it first needs your permission. Be prudent.
12. Redefine the word “failure”
“I’ve missed more than 9000 shots in my career. I’ve lost almost 300 games. Twenty-six times I’ve been trusted to take the game winning shot and missed. I’ve failed over and over in my life. And that is why I succeed.” — Michael Jordan
There is nobody, anywhere, that’s done something important, and for long enough, that hasn’t failed in one way or another. There are no exceptions.
Failure is a part of the process. In and of itself, it’s almost never final. More often than not, it’s a feedback tool. It provides a hint of what doesn’t work so that we can direct ourselves onto a more certain path towards what does.
If there is one iron law in the world, it’s that persistence is the price we pay for success and happiness. Without it, both would cease to hold true value.
Checks and balances are critical, and sometimes, quitting can be right, but if you have a rational reason to believe in yourself, then it’s on you to show up.
Failure is a tool to recenter yourself. Use it to drive you to your potential.