The Real Habit-Building Secrets You’ve Been Missing (And How They’ll Change Everything)

Keenan Eriksson
Publishous
Published in
17 min readDec 14, 2023

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Photo by Lala Azizli on Unsplash

In October 2016 I started training two-a-days in CrossFit and living the best days of my life. By my birthday in 2017, I had panic disorder and health problems.

This wasn’t like starting from zero. Rock bottom isn’t neutral. It was starting from negative ten, or maybe ten thousand.

In a place like that, you can’t rely on motivation. How you feel is always a two-word expletive: “like shit”, and the coffee that once gave you energy instead makes you anxious.

Now look, I’m not here to be a debby-downer talking about my struggles or how hard life is or yadda-yadda, but what I do know is this:

The things that work in the low places work exponentially in the high places.

So what works?

Habits.

“You don’t rise to the occasion. You fall to the level of your habits.”

There Will Only Ever Be 24 Hours In A Day. How You Use Them Is Everything.

Originally I wrote this document for a client to help her organize a thousand seemingly equally relevant things she “needed” to start doing. Seeing the value in it, this is the reworked version for the general population.

I used habits to escape chronic fatigue syndrome, panic disorder, build my career and ultimately save my own life. Your situation may not be so dire, and my hope is you’re motivated by things that excite you rather than things you fear, but you’ll need good tools either way.

And it all comes down to the day at hand.

No matter how far you go, how much you improve, or what you build, there will only ever be 24 hours in a day. And based on the prominent research, we should all be getting 8 hours of sleep at night, which may mean being in bed for 10.

Here’s what I’m getting at. Every day when you wake up you’ve got 14 hours, essentially.

And all the things that you want to get done, improve, or make habitual need to fit into those 14 hours.

There are two sides to that equation.

One side is that I do think it’s possible to suddenly go from inertia to intense, mind-blowing momentum.

This is what I call “picking up the slack,” or “Kishi Kaisei,” after the Japanese concept meaning “awake from death, return to life.” When you’ve been stagnant, a great sudden effort can put you in new territory suddenly and effectively.

The other side is that with an already full schedule, or too many other stressors or unpredictability in your life, long-term improvement happens incrementally. It’s what you build day by day.

A big shift may set up your foundation, but consistency and the slow, steady addition and subtraction of habits is where you’ll spend most of your time.

Identity-Based Habits

According to James Clear, author of Atomic Habits, your habits are the middle level of a three-part phenomenon: the process.

Identity ➡️ process ➡️ outcomes

Most people work backward. We think about some result we want (outcome), develop habits to get there (process), and hope it will make us the person we want to be (identity).

In actual practice the most powerful habits come from identity rather than result in it.

Now, I’m a realist. There is an extent that seeing results gives you proof of who you are (if they’re consistent). On the other hand, who among us has not achieved something they thought would truly change them? Only to find out we’re still the same person at the end of the day?

Ever heard of imposter syndrome?

So the first principle of building effective habits is to start with Identity.

Who do you want to be?

Ask yourself if you can be that person now, as a decision, or even more simply, what would they do?

Focus on who you wish to become rather than what you want to achieve.

Here’s an example.

Imagine someone is trying to quit smoking. Unless their tactic is to live under a rock, someday they’ll inevitably be asked if they want to smoke. They respond, “No thanks, I’m trying to quit smoking.” This is an outcomes-first response.

Now, imagine an identity-first response. When they get asked if they want a cigarette, they say, “No thanks, I’m not a smoker.”

There’s a lot more power in the second statement. “I’m trying to quit” vs. “I’m not a smoker.”

Most people don’t start with identity when they begin seeking to improve. It’s logical to imagine you’ve got to earn it somehow, after all, but at some point, you have to decide that you have a different identity. It might as well be at the beginning.

Here’s what this could look like: Take any single goal, such as improving your diet by not eating gluten.

Now, decide that you are a person who doesn’t eat gluten. Decide that is part of your identity.

We can expand this as far as you’re willing to go.

For example, you could visualize yourself in your ideal future living as the person you desire to be. Then integrate that into the here and now.

Future Me is a visualization practice I picked up from Way of The SEAL by Mark Divine some years ago, and it has helped me change my life ever since. Mark is a Yogi and former Navy SEAL commander who served for 20 years before leaving the military to found multiple multi-million dollar businesses. He attributes his success in all these ventures to visualization and meditation practices he learned while training in karate.

The Future Me Visualization

To perform future me, find a quiet, comfortable place where you will not be disturbed. Sit down, close your eyes, and breathe deeply for at least 5 minutes.

After 5 minutes pass, you are going to spend time imagining yourself in your ideal future at three different times:

3 months from now.

A year from now.

3–5 years from now.

Spend some time on each of these. If everything happened as you desire between now and then, what would your life look like? What would your room look like? When you wake up, are you alone? What would your morning look like? Imagine yourself in as much detail as possible while going about your day. You can also interject “memories” of trips or adventures. Competitions. Achievements. Etc.

This should naturally form a feeling-image of who you are in the future. Spend a few minutes per timeline until you have a real sense of clarity about how you would feel and who you would be in these “future memories.”

Now, when you are ready, collapse each future version of yourself into the now and imagine you are already that version of you. You’re the one who has already experienced the things ahead and therefore knows you are capable of it all.

Imagining is itself a powerful technique, but the most important part of the meditation is at the end. Decide you are already the person from your visions.

If you think about it, you could take that future version of yourself, throw them in a physics-defying time machine, and then put them right in your shoes now. Put them in your physical body, put them in your career situation, put them in your life as it is today.

Surely they’d know what to do and how to handle the current situation. Why? Because they already did it before.

The fastest way to change your habits is to change your beliefs about yourself. For one thing, believe you can do what you set out to do, decide you’re the kind of person who does it, and then do it.

Replace Bad Habits With Good Habits (Don’t Try To Break Habits)

Another aspect of habit building is focusing on replacing bad habits with good habits, rather than breaking them.

I have a bad habit of impulsively purchasing health-related products or using up more of my paychecks than I’ve budgeted right as I receive them.

The natural approach is to tell oneself, “Stop doing that!”

But ultimately, all this does is get me thinking about doing it, over and over and over without an alternative.

Trying to delete a bad habit creates a void that must be filled, and with your mind preoccupied with the thing you’re trying not to do (an oxymoron in its own right,) it's right there waiting for you to give in.

Now I know I just mentioned this idea of describing yourself as a person who does not eat gluten, and that is still my recommendation when it comes to certain identity-based shifts.

I’m not talking about avoiding negative language, though if you can, that’s great.

What I’m talking about is when it comes to the habits themselves, think in terms of what you will do, rather than what you won’t do.

Someone who knows they eat healthy, and has confidence in that, thinks of what they will eat, not what they won’t eat. They go to a party, and the junk food simply isn’t food to them. They don’t go in believing they’re going to need to exercise restraint or self-discipline, they go in with their own platter of foods they will eat instead. Because they are a person who only eats healthy food.

Yes, you will exercise restraints and discipline plenty often, and I personally have taught myself to relish that, but, simultaneously, you want to grow.

When you grow, you don’t need restraint and discipline to do what was once difficult. It becomes part of who you are, and a big component of this is thinking in terms of action rather than refraining.

Awake From Death, Return To Life (Kishi Kaisei)

One of my favorite new phrases is the Japanese saying “Kishi Kaisei.”

It directly translates to “awake from death, return to life.” It is used in Japan to reference escaping a low place in one’s life through a sudden burst of energy, will, and effort.

I love this saying because some of the most invigorating and powerful experiences of my life have been times when I suddenly faced off against a long-held fear or limitation and ran boldly into a new future.

When you engage in “Kishi Kaisei,” you sprint forward and integrate all the things you think you’re capable of and know are good practices, and while lifelong improvement is a step-by-step process, you take up all the slack and get 80% of the way there in one fell swoop.

For habit building, I think the greatest example of Kishi Kaisei is by organizing your day.

Book-end your days by being most strict with your morning and evening. Standardize how you start and how you end every day.

For example, I get up at 6:00 am, and I start my evening ritual to go to sleep at 7 pm.

I have a habit at 6:00 am of getting out of bed, doing breathwork and a cold shower, and going for a run. These are must-do’s for me.

At 7 pm, I do a short journaling exercise and then foam roll for 30 minutes while watching a show. I make sure to start this at 7 pm without fail.

There is zero fudge time available for me before running in the morning or after journaling in the evening. Whatever else happens during the day, I prioritize the beginning and the end.

The purpose of this is multifold. For one thing, as I mentioned earlier, high-quality sleep trumps extra time, so I guard my sleep jealously. A stable bedtime routine is one of the best ways to improve sleep quality. The second factor is that bookending my day creates forced consistency and reduces the amount of potential sabotage that can occur from an unplanned late night.

Then I fill in the middle.

How you fill the middle is purely your choice, but remember this. Just because you haven’t organized your day doesn’t mean there are any more hours available.

Many times in the past, I have begun to crave an unscheduled routine while adhering to a strict one.

What’s even weirder is I feel that, somehow an unscheduled day will let me do more stuff.

This is false.

An organized garage always has more space available than a disorganized one.

When I crave “disorganized time,” what I’m really saying is there are things I want to get done that I haven’t scheduled for or that I want some time to freestyle.

Rather than throw your schedule to the wind, which will ultimately result in getting less done, rewrite your schedule. Remove something to make room for something else. Pick one day a week where you’ll address whatever you’ve found difficult to fit into your schedule. Or schedule in “unscheduled” time. Just don’t wing it entirely.

Use backstops too. Backstops are a navigation tool used by map readers. They mark landmarks and locations ahead of time to tell them if they are still on track.

If you miss a backstop, have a plan for what you’ll do instead.

For example, I try to wake up at 6 am, but sometimes I sleep until 8. It’s not a choice ahead of time, and when this happens, I always wish I’d forced myself up at 6. Better tired than unhinged.

But it happens enough that I created a backstop schedule specifically for these late-start days.

Here’s how to design your own schedule

  1. Write down your ideal schedule by what you will do and when. Be conservative at first. Give more time for your morning ritual and evening rituals than you think you’ll need.
  2. Design a backstop day based on things that often throw a monkey wrench in your day, such as sleeping in, sudden hangouts, etc.
  3. Decide your critical nodes, and commit to doing them right above all else. I suggest this be your morning ritual, evening ritual, and first work block of the day.

Here is an example of my day to use as a guideline. Roughly speaking, I set up my day as a morning ritual, several 90-minute work blocks, 30-minute breaks between work blocks, A 90-minute block in the afternoon for a workout, and my evening ritual.

Here was my Monday:

6 am morning ritual (2 hours)

  • Never Finished audiobook voice memo exercise in bed
  • Let dogs outside
  • Wim hof breathing and cold shower.
  • 1.2-mile run
  • 20 minutes or so feeding dogs, tidying up, and putting breakfast in the air fryer while cooling down from the run
  • Hot shower and get dressed in normal, non-workout clothes
  • 30-minute meditation
  • Morning meeting
  • Focus plan for the day
  • The one most important thing
  • 2 work tasks
  • 2 personal tasks
  • 1 habit to make sure happens
  • Review current projects (just write down what they are)
  • Notes
  • Transfer to perfect planner
  • Time-based planner. I write down when my work blocks will be, breaks (and what I’ll do during), etc.
  • Transfer tasklist to sticky note with checkboxes and put in pocket
  • Eat breakfast & take supplements
  • If going somewhere to work, drive there

8 am The One Thing (TOT) Work block 1 (90 minutes)

  • 90-minute work block on the most important thing that day. My default is writing for my blog, which is the work I consider most important for my long-term career. I often shift this to other things if something has been getting neglected for several days.

9:30 am Foundation Training (30 minutes)

  • Foundation training is a 12-minute routine I do daily for back health and posture. I have 30 minutes total before my next work block.

10:00 am Work Block 2 (90 minutes)

  • My second work block is always either paid writing, which is my most stable income, or it is writing for my personal blog if I happen to do something else during my first work block.

11:30 am Nap Break (30 minutes)

  • If I am home or near home, I go to my room, prop my feet up on my bed, put on a sleep mask, and put on brain.fm for deep sleep for 20 minutes. It doesn’t matter if I fall asleep or not. Non-sleep deep rest (NSDR) has been shown to greatly improve focus.
  • If I am not home, I will often refer to this as a “change location” break, and drive home or somewhere else to work.

12:00 pm Alternating Work Block 3 (90 Minutes)

  • This is my first work block that changes regularly. If I have not yet done any paid writing, this is when I do it. Other times I’ll prospect for new work or clients, or work for coaching clients. Occasionally I’ll use this block for errands.

1:30 pm Workout Block (90 minutes)

  • Currently, On Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays, I do a 45-minute mobility routine from gymnasticbodies.com. On Tuesdays I do their upper body strength routine. On Thursdays, I do lower body & core. On Saturdays, I don’t run, but I do 2-a-days with either Jiu Jitsu and later handstand work, or sprints and later handstand work.
  • My workout usually takes 45 minutes. I’ll use the other 45 to get home if I am out and to eat lunch after training.
  • I also tack on Foundation Training to the end of my workouts if, for some reason, I missed it in the morning.

3:00 pm Work block 4 non-writing work (90 minutes)

  • As the name implies, I’ll do non-writing work during this block. Usually prospecting for clients. Sometimes I learn about the business side of freelancing.

4:30 pm Non-Sleep Deep Rest or Walk (30 minutes)

  • For this block, ideally, I like to meditate for 20 minutes with no goal. It’s not visualization. I’ll set a timer on my phone so I’m not thinking about it. I’ll box breathe (5 count inhale. 5 count hold . 5 exhale. 5 hold) and think only the thought, “I am.” Sometimes I’ll read a chapter of the book I Am That by Sri Nisargadatta Maharaj before meditating.
  • Often I’ll just walk or fudge around.

5 pm Work Tasks Block (1 hour)

  • During my last work block, I do tasks. Right now, this mainly pertains to editing my website, researching, etc. If there are no tasks for the day I’ll do personal tasks.

6 pm Personal Tasks / Me Time

  • At 6 I switch to personal tasks if I have any. Usually cleaning related of some kind. If I don’t, I’ll go over to friends' houses or the parks.
  • As personal tasks sometimes require doing something during the day, I will often swap my breaks for little tasks like going to the bank or sending mail. I also cut one of my work blocks out on Wednesdays to give myself time for deeper errands or hanging out with friends at the end of the day.

7 pm Evening Ritual

  • At 7 pm I start my evening ritual to end the day.
  • Accountability mirror: I have “harsh truth” sticky notes on my mirror. I look over them, remove any that I’ve conquered/changed, and write new ones. I have 3 categories. Identity truths. Tasks truths. And outcome truths.
  • Identity truths are things like “you’ve been eating like shit” or “you’re disorganized about your work.” These truths are self call-outs. While I recommend choosing to be a new identity, actions speak louder than words. These sticky notes are about calling out your actions for what they really say about you. Are you walking the talk?
  • Task truths are about getting something done: “Switch health insurance,” “email 5 magazines to work for,” “review budget,” etc.
  • Outcome truths are things I want. I try to make them time-bound if possible: “Get 2 new coaching clients,” “reach 10k income by April,” I make sure all these have at least 1 task on my mirror for pursuing them.
  • I love you, Keenan mirror exercise.
  • After updating the accountability mirror, I put on “I Vow To Love Myself instrumental” by Akira the don and look into my eyes while saying, “I love you, Keenan” until the song ends.
  • This serves a dual purpose of reminding myself that the previous exercise with the accountability mirror isn’t about beating myself down or creating shame, as well as feeling into the emotion of love. For myself. For life. For God. Etc.
  • 30-minute foam rolling with TV
  • I do a 30-minute daily maintenance routine from The Ready State app. While doing this, I watch an episode or two of TV. I’ve noticed this works well if the show episodes are less than 30 minutes. Otherwise, I typically want to keep watching after I finish foam rolling, which then turns into binging. Last night, for example, I had a bit more time, so I decided I’d watch half the “Across The Spider-verse” Movie. Well, half turned into the whole thing, which added an hour and a half to my “bedtime.” These are the kinds of things to note for backstops.
  • Evening journal review.
  • I used to go straight from foam rolling to bed, but often I’d find myself wanting to do something more first.
  • I write down how the day went in my personal journal. Just freehand.
  • Then I create a focus plan for the next day, which I will rewrite during my morning ritual. It’s not about planning so much as getting an idea of how the day could go. It’s been shown that a written task list for the coming day helps people fall asleep faster, and that the greater the level of detail, the better.
  • Meditate.
  • If I did not meditate earlier in the day, I do it now. 20 minutes box breathing thinking only “I am”.
  • Optional breathwork
  • If I have trouble sleeping, I’ll listen to the Soma Sleep Breathwork video on YouTube and follow along while lying in bed. Rarely will I do this and the meditation. Usually, it’s one or the other.

This usually has me in bed by 8:30 pm, and sometimes earlier.

Slow & Steady From Here

As you can see, I don’t have much time to add more things to my daily schedule. I do have things I’d like to do in the future that would require more time.

This is where step-by-step improvement comes in.

First, run, sprint, and dive off that cliff into the space that you know you can occupy. Take in your power and run with it.

Once you’re engaged in this “Kishi Kaisei”-style renewal, you might be tempted to believe that continuing to level up means continuing to explode forward with massive effort.

Generally speaking, that’s not the case.

Instead, it’s more about steadfast improvement from here.

With my schedule, I add half a mile to my daily run weekly.

I cut down on prospecting time as I get new clients.

Personally, I’m not very interested in working less. I actually enjoy working as much as I can while also fitting in workouts. But, I do want to delve into some creative endeavors like guitar or potentially tattooing some day. That will require removing time blocks from my schedule to make room.

There’s also things I’m improving with my current schedule.

Despite my evening ritual, I have been having nights of poor sleep and waking up late too often.

The next step for me is to pick one thing to improve on to help this problem. I could make my daily nap mandatory, which could improve sleep quality.

I could also more severely restrict my evening access to electronics using the freedom app, or other tools.

And/or I could implement a sleep supplement like melatonin.

Finally, if none of these are working or it’s taking too long, I could move my whole schedule forward 2 hours, make getting up at 8:00 am my normal and start my evening ritual at 9:00 pm, thereby prioritizing my total work time over a specific schedule that doesn’t align with my circadian rhythm.

There’s a flow to this process. Most people can’t keep all this in their heads at one time, which is why I use tools like journaling and focus plans.

The best book I’ve found for designing your schedule is Way Of The SEAL by Mark Divine, mentioned earlier. I still use the daily journaling prompts and focus plans from this book which I first read in 2016.

Don’t Do More. Do right.

In the long run, you do want to be doing as much as you can on a daily basis. But. Without starting with the most important things and getting them right, you’ll spread yourself thin.

If you’re only going with the thoughts in your head, you probably seek to accomplish more than you could fit into any given day.

The answer here is organization over intensity.

The big question I want you to ask yourself regarding all the things that you’re working on is “where can I fit these into my day where they will work synergistically and not antagonistically.”

I fit extra mobility into my evening ritual because foam rolling doubles as a sleep aid.

Have fun, organize your garage, and enjoy your new habit-based life.

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Keenan Eriksson
Publishous

Biohacking-Based Life Coach & Author. I Help My Clients Overcome Disease www.kishikaiseicourse.com& Optimize Their Lives Using Biology.