Just about everyone wants to cultivate better habits. The problem is, very few of us want to do the work to make those habits a reality. We hope they will magically develop, that one day we’ll just wake up (early, without even considering the snooze button) and head straight to the gym. Then we’ll have a healthy breakfast and sit right down with that creative project we’ve been putting off for months. At some point our desire to smoke or lie or complain will mysteriously disappear too.
The reality? This has never happened for anyone, and it’s never going to happen. This is what inspired Epictetus’ famous quote from 2,000 years ago: “How long are you going to wait before you demand the best for yourself?” He’s really asking how much longer you are going to wait until you demand the best of yourself.
I know I want to eat better and be more present. For a long time, I’ve wanted to do push-ups every day. I also want to work less and spend less time checking my phone. I want to start saying no so I can say yes to things I have been putting off. But I’ve wanted to make these changes for a long time. How do I transform my vague hopes into reality?
To start, I need to develop better habits, better accountability, and a clearer vision for my day-to-day life. Here are the steps I am taking. We are all staring down the barrel of a new year, and if we aren’t going to do it now, when will we?
Think Small—Really Small
The writer James Clear talks a lot about the idea of “atomic habits” (and has a really good book with the same title). An atomic habit is a small habit that makes an enormous difference in your life. He talks about how the British cycling team was completely turned around by focusing on 1 percent improvements in every area. That sounds small, but it accumulates and adds up in a big way. He emphasizes thinking small with big habits. Don’t promise yourself you’re going to read more; instead, commit to reading one page per day. Thinking big is great, but thinking small is easier. And easier is what we’re after when it comes to getting started. Because once you get started, you can build.
Create a Physical Reminder
A physical totem can make the habit or standard you’re trying to hold yourself to into something more than an idea, and that helps—a lot. The author and minister Will Bowen has a simple system that helps people quit complaining. He provides each member of his congregation with a purple bracelet, and each time they complain, they switch the bracelet from one wrist to the other. This method is simple and straightforward and makes it easy to hold yourself accountable. Over my desk, I have a picture of Oliver Sacks. In the background he has a sign that reads “NO!” that helped remind him (and now me) to use that powerful word. One of the reasons we made coins for Daily Stoic was that when you have something physical you can touch, it grounds you. The coins are made at the same mint where the first Alcoholics Anonymous chips were invented, and they represent the same idea. If you have 10 years of sobriety sitting in your pocket or clasped in your hand, you’re less likely to throw it away for a drink.
Lay Out Your Supplies
When I get to my desk in the morning, the three journals I write in are sitting right there. If I want to skip the habit, I have to pick them up and move them aside. So most mornings I don’t move them, and I write in them. You can use the same strategy if, for example, you want to start running in the morning. Place your shoes, shorts, and jacket next to your bed or in the doorway of your bedroom so you can put them on immediately. You’ll be less likely to take the easy way out if it’s embarrassingly simple to do the thing you want to do.
Piggyback New Habits on Old Habits
In 2018, I kept telling myself I wanted to contribute more to my community or be of more service. When I heard about someone volunteering, I would say to myself, “I’m going to start doing that.” I read about William MacAskill giving up a great deal of his income and thought, “Wow, I’d like to do something like that.” And then, of course, I didn’t do much of either. Then I listened to an interview with David Sedaris, who talked about how he likes to go on long walks and pick up trash near his home. I go for a walk nearly every morning. It’s an ingrained habit that’s part of my routine. Boom: I just added picking up garbage to my walk. This was easy because I had already done the heavy lifting of creating the first habit. Now it’s harder not to pick up trash, like when I don’t have a bag. Will this little activity save the world? Of course not. But it helps. And I can build on it.
Surround Yourself With Good People
“Tell me who you spend time with and I will tell you who you are” was Goethe’s line. Jim Rohn came up with the phrase that we are the average of the five people we spend the most time with. If you want to have better habits, find better friends. Most of my friends are in good shape. None smokes. Most are in good relationships. Most seem to have their shit together. I’m inspired to be better because I’m around them (and I get lots of good ideas for habits and activities). I’m also shamed into not being worse. If I started slipping, I would stand out.
Commit to a Challenge
In 2018, we did our first Daily Stoic Challenge, which was 30 consecutive days of different challenges and activities based on Stoic philosophy. It was an awesome experience. Even I, the person who created the challenge, got a lot out of it. Why? I think it was the process of handing myself over to a script. It’s the reason personal trainers are so effective. You just show up at the gym and they tell you what to do, and it’s never the same thing as the last time. Deciding what we want to do, determining our own habits, and making the right choices is exhausting. Handing the wheel over to someone else is a way to narrow our focus and put everything into the commitment. That’s why Whole30 is so popular. You buy a book and follow a regimen, and then you know what you’re doing for the next month.
To kick off 2019 we’re doing another Daily Stoic Challenge, this time for 14 days. The idea is that you ought to start the new year right—with 14 great days to create momentum for the rest of the year. If you want to have better habits this year, find a challenge you can participate in. Just try one: It doesn’t matter what it’s about or who else is doing it.
Make It Interesting
As I mentioned before, I’ve always tried to be someone who does push-ups every day. Since June, I’ve done at least 50 push-ups a day (sometimes as many as 100) almost without fail. How? I’ve been using Spar!, which is basically the most addictive and rewarding app I’ve ever downloaded. Right now I’m in a 50-push-up challenge with about two dozen people. Every day, we do 50 push-ups and upload video proof that we’ve done them. If you miss a day, the app charges you $5. At first you do the daily deed just so you don’t lose money. But soon enough, it’s about competing with the people in the group. Then a few days in, another motivation kicks in: The winners (people with the fewest misses) split the pot of everyone else’s fees. So you keep going because you want the reward. I’ve done thousands of push-ups, squats, burpees, and sit-ups (and even did one about cleaning my car and another about writing 500 words a day)—and in the process I also made a couple hundred bucks.
It’s About the Ritual
Professional dancer Twyla Tharp has written about how every morning she gets up early, dresses, and takes a cab to the same gym, where she works out for several hours. This is how she trains and keeps herself fit. Her workouts are tough and exhausting, and you’d think she would need a lot of discipline to commit to showing up each morning. But, as she writes in The Creative Habit, she just has to get herself to the cab. That’s it. The rest takes care of itself. The ritual takes over.
It Doesn’t Have to Be an Everyday Thing
I read a lot, but not usually every day. I do most of my reading when I travel, when I binge on books. Trying to force myself to read every single day (or for a set amount of time or a set amount of pages) would not be as productive or as enjoyable as periods of three to five days of really heavy reading (where I might finish three to five books). Binge reading may not be the right thing for everyone, but not every good habit has to be part of a daily routine. Sprints or batching can work too. What matters is that the results average out.
Focus on Yourself
One of the reasons I’ve talked about watching less news and not obsessing over things outside your control is simple: resource allocation. If your morning is ruined because you woke up to CNN reports of another ridiculous Trump 2 a.m. tweet-storm, you’re not going to have the energy or the motivation to focus on making the right dietary choices or sitting down to do that hard piece of work. I don’t watch the news, I don’t check social media much, and I don’t stress about everything going on in the world—not because I’m apathetic, but because there are all sorts of changes I want to make. I just believe these changes start at home. I want to get myself together before I bemoan what’s going on in Washington or whether the U.K. will figure out a Brexit strategy. “If you wish to improve,” Epictetus said, “be content to be seen as ignorant or clueless about some things.” (Or a lot of things.)
Make It About Your Identity
Generally, I agree with Paul Graham that we should keep our identities small, and generally, I think identity politics are toxic. It’s a huge advantage, however, to cultivate certain habits or commitments that are foundational to your identity. For example, it is essential to my understanding of the kind of person I am that I am punctual. I also have decided that I am the kind of person who does not miss deadlines. That I see myself as a writer is also valuable because if I’m not writing, I’m not earning that image. You can see why being vegan becomes part of people’s identity too. If it was just about choosing not to eat any animal products, the diet would be extremely difficult to adhere to. But because it is a lifestyle and an ideology, vegans are willing to push through all that. They don’t see it as a choice, but rather as the right thing to do.
Keep It Simple
Most people are way too obsessed with productivity and optimization. They want to know all the tools a successful writer or an artist uses because they think this is what makes these individuals so great. In reality, they are great because they love what they do and they have something they’re trying to say. When I look at some people’s routines and all the stuff they’re trying to manage, I shudder. Their habits require habits! No wonder they don’t make progress. My to-do lists are always short. I want my goals to be reachable, and I don’t want to be constantly busy or get burned out. This is why James Clear’s concept of atomic habits is so important. Look at the little things that make a big difference—not only is this more manageable, but the results will also create momentum.
Pick Yourself Up When You Fall
The path to self-improvement is rocky, and slipping and tripping is inevitable. You’ll forget to do the push-ups, you’ll cheat on your diet, you’ll get sucked into the rabbit hole of Twitter, or you’ll complain and have to switch the bracelet from one wrist to another. That’s okay. It doesn’t mean you’re a bad person. I’ve always been fond of this advice from Oprah: If you catch yourself eating an Oreo, don’t beat yourself up; just try to stop before you eat the whole sleeve. Don’t turn a slip into a catastrophic fall. And a couple of centuries before her, Marcus Aurelius said something similar:
When jarred, unavoidably, by circumstance, revert at once to yourself, and don’t lose the rhythm more than you can help. You’ll have a better group of harmony if you keep on going back to it.
In other words, when you mess up, come back to the habits you’ve been working on. Come back to the ideas here in this post. Don’t quit just because you’re not perfect.
No one is saying you have to magically transform yourself in 2019, but if you’re not making progress toward the person you want to be, what are you doing? And, more important, when are you planning to do it?
I’ll leave you with Epictetus once more, who wrote so eloquently about feeding the right habit bonfire. It’s the perfect passage to recite as we set out to begin a new year, hopefully, as better people.
From now on, then, resolve to live as a grown-up who is making progress, and make whatever you think best a law that you never set aside. And whenever you encounter anything that is difficult or pleasurable, or highly or lowly regarded, remember that the contest is now: you are at the Olympic Games, you cannot wait any longer…