The Problem with Practicing Every Day

How I Got Better at All the Wrong Things

“How the fuck did you even get a driver’s license?!”

Flick.

Ouch.

I recently put a rubber band around my wrist. Every time I curse, I flick myself with it. Kinda like this guy getting slapped when he procrastinates.

I hadn’t realized I had such a foul mouth. I’m not going to explain why I want to stop swearing. Instead, let’s just assume there’s a legitimate reason.

So what exactly does the rubber band have to do with it?

“We don’t rise to the level of our expectations, we fall to the level of our training.”
— Greek soldier and poet Archilochos

Or, as Basecamp founder Jason Fried says, you play like you practice.

I hadn’t realized it, but I became really great at swearing — even at inopportune moments. It was finding its way into my conversations with strangers and acquaintances. The rubber band is there to make me aware of when I curse, so I can have better control over it.

Fuuuuuuuuuuuuuuu. Image by thoth-god.

Practicing works both ways. If you practice being your best self every day, even on the ones you don’t feel like it, you’ll find it easier (and perhaps more natural) to be more patient, more honest, more productive, amongst many other things.

In contrast, if you give in to being lazy, impulsive, dislikeable, and your worst possible self, every day, you might miss out on some interesting opportunities. The most painful ones are the ones you actually really wanted, that you hadn’t meant to give up. You’ll grow helpless and wonder why you seem to have such terrible fucking (ouch!) luck. You won’t realize you’ve gotten really good at lazing around, giving in to your emotions, and being self-centered.

For years, I had carelessly practiced procrastinating. Laziness. Cowardice. Swearing. For years. It’s going to take some practice to tone each of these down. So let’s assume you actually want to be better and better than you were yesterday.

If this is the case, what are some of the most rewarding things you could practice?

i. Practice Productivity

Everyone has the same 24 hours per day. Some people use their time and energy better than others.

When you’re trying to find something to watch during lunch or dinner, watch an interview instead of a TV show. It’s likelier that you’ll learn a thing or two valuable to the real world in the interview, whereas it’s not as likely with a TV show. (Talking about averages here — obviously there are some super insightful TV shows.)

Some other things to practice:

  • Creating a daily to-do list
  • Taking 5 mins to plan your day
  • Writing thoughts down so you don’t forget them
  • Not just doing more, but doing things better (e.g., figure out which moments this week/month made you feel great, perform fear setting exercises, looking at your peak hours, etc.)
  • Focus (I swear by the pomodoro method)
  • A healthier media diet (less trashy TV, more docs, or books, or interviews, or cool dinner guests)
  • Delegating and automating unpleasant tasks. Figure out how to do this

Some things to stop practicing:

  • Procrastination
  • Checking emails or social media frequently/impulsively (ideally — deal with email as little as you can get away with)
  • Snooze (come on, why do we torture ourselves? Waking up once is difficult enough)

ii. Practice Philosophy and Psychology

One of the awesome things of the human mind is metacognition: our ability to think about how we think.

You might be scratching your head. Huh?

Everything can change. Our personality. Our priorities. Our perspective. Our understanding. Our fears. Our limits.

Philosophy and psychology can help us change these things so we have more positive outcomes that we enjoy.

I’m not saying you can turn a crippling weakness into a strength necessarily, but you can at least become less weak.

Unfortunately, many human tendencies naturally lead towards negative change. We grow more impatient. More stressed. More entitled. More snobbish. Less empathetic. So in order to improve, you must practice making positive change.

The idea is similar to that of power posing — like author AJ Jacobs points out, if you act as if you’re who you want to be, you’ll get there.

For me, I’m by default an impatient person. (Friends, I see you nodding and laughing. Shut the fuck up, hahaha. Ouch.)

While I recognize that it’s been useful in the past, there have also been times that this quality has put me in a tough situation. I’m still not particularly patient, but I’m aiming to get better at it.

Instead of getting irritated, I try to think about my parents and their patience with me. I think about a statue of Buddha that I saw in Shanghai, where the facial expression just looked really tranquil. I’ll breathe a 4–4–4 pattern (4 seconds in, 4 seconds hold, 4 seconds out) and calm myself down. I’ll remember John D. Rockefeller, of whom it was said grew calmer when everyone else grew more agitated. I’ll remind myself that the other person, or situation, is not an enemy yet, but if I give in to the pain of impatience that could change quickly.

Managing your own psychology is an important skill to master, as both Netscape founder and Marc Andreessen and Opsware founder Ben Horowitz say. You can use philosophy to help you do this.

Some things to practice:

  • Write in a journal every day. (Our memories aren’t nearly as precise as we believe.)
  • Practice delayed gratification.
  • Go out of your comfort zone.
  • Read more. Re-read important things. (Faster to learn by reading than lectures or conversations, as SpaceX and Tesla CEO Elon Musk says.)
  • Self-talk. If you want to hate yourself less, or love yourself more, talk differently to yourself every day. Be more gentle. More patient. More accepting of your own strengths and weaknesses.
  • Know your triggers. The next time you’re upset or angry, think about how it escalated. Was it reasonable for you to have this reaction? Should you change it? How? Think about your thought patterns and loops.
  • Gratitude. At the beginning of each day, write down 3–5 things you’re grateful for or excited about.

Some things to stop practicing:

  • Giving into impulse or recklessness.
  • Things that hurt your conscience. Listen to it.
  • Cynicism (I saw you rolling your eyes earlier). Haha just kidding. Sometimes it’s important to be critical!

iii. Practice People

This is totally underrated. I’m not talking about practicing networking or email outreach. Not because being popular is important (although it can be for some people), but because people influence the first two things heavily. It may also influence your own happiness.

Some folks say happiness is only real when shared. Others say shared experiences are more amplified. But, the reality: no one is an island.

Certain friends inspire me, motivate me, and kick my ass when I need it. Others ask me questions that I can’t answer. Some are really honest. Others friends are really good at being social which brings out my inner chatterbox. Some take me outside of work and remind me not to take life too seriously.

Some things to practice:

  • Social etiquette (really important). Some are straightforward enough. Others can only be learned through your own crashing and burning. The key is to learn from it.
  • Outreach (perhaps meeting one new person per week). As they say, your network is your net worth.
  • Conversation and communication. Guide it to the shared goal. Conversation helps you better understand people, and vice versa. Underrated skill. (Perhaps you should check out Crucial Conversations.)
  • Being honest and vulnerable.

Some things to stop practicing:

  • Broadcasting negative body language (e.g., default frown, crossed arms, etc.). You might wonder why someone is frowning at you, only to realize you have a grumpy look on your face that caused it.
  • Lying. (Or dishonesty in general.)
  • Anything that repels people (e.g., cursing, outbursts, etc.).

There are a lot of other things you could improve upon (e.g., personal qualities). Be aware of the routines and habits you’re building.

Don’t get better at the stuff you didn’t mean to. Whether it’s something as minute as swearing, or a more overarching habit or theme in your life, keep your eyes on the things you practice.


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Herbert Lui is the Creative Director of Wonder Shuttle. He is a former writer for Lifehacker whose writing has appeared in Fast Company, The Globe and Mail, and The Huffington Post.