Have you ever seen someone show up in the most professional snowboarding gear on the planet, on his first lesson? Had an intern who insists he needs a MacBook Pro to properly write his graduation report? Or observed a 6 year with a tennis racket, more expensive than your iPhone 6?
What they have in common, is a belief having the very best tools will instantly improve their abilities. But as any true professional will confirm, awesome equipment only starts to count when you know how to use it. First, you need understanding of the game, the right technique, good practise habits and so on. A world-class player with shitty tools will still beat an amateur with excellent gear any day.
Respect the basics
When it comes to how we approach our daily work, most of us are like the guy with the shiny Burton snowboard on his first day. We use a fancy computer, download a bunch of productivity apps and maybe buy a book or two on time-management (which we don’t end up reading, because we don’t have time). But have you given much thought to what is driving your behavior throughout the day? Do you even know how your brain works?
When it comes to doing great work, we shouldn’t start with the tools. We’re much better off taking a closer look at our brain and the force driving our daily routine: habits.
More than 40% of actions we perform each day are not actual decisions but habits.”*
Before we decide what tools to use, it pays off to have some understanding of our auto-pilot and how we can adjust his course. Therefore, let’s look at four common habits of habits:
- Good habits are like trust. They come by foot and leave by horse. Bad habits are the opposite: they come by horse and leave by foot. In other words; bad habits are “easy come“, good habits are “easy go”.
- Good habits play the long game. Almost without fail, good habits have a payoff in the future, while bad habits provide instant gratification, but bad news down the road. Exercising will turn you into a God(ess) only after months of intense training. On the other hand, checking Facebook gives your mind some immediate relief from whatever it is you’re supposed to be doing, but leaves you with more work to do in the future.
- Habits are hard to change. They’re literally hardwired into our brains. Even when you “override” the habit pattern in your brain with something else, the old wiring will still be there. That’s why someone who has quit smoking for several years, can easily pick it up again with just one innocent cigarette: the pattern gets “activated” and you’re back at your old behaviour.
- Habits are intangible. They are difficult to deconstruct and analyse (what really triggers a certain habit and which craving drives it). But even once you’re aware of one and have it deconstructed, it’s easy to forget about your good intentions to change. Unless you cover your computer in yellow Post-It notes, set a reminder on your phone every 15 minutes or use our free Daily Checklist Template, you are likely to forget your intention to kick that bad habit, especially when faced with a stressful situation.
Let’s call in the experts
Are we completely powerless? No, there is a hope. If you want to change your habits, here are some suggestions from experts from around the web:
- In “The 3 R’s of Habit Change: How To Start New Habits That Actually Stick“, James Clear suggests you start with an easy habit and “attach” it to an existing habit. For example, if you want to start flossing, always do it after you have brushed your teeth. This way brushing your teeth will become an automatic “cue” for your brain to floss your teeth afterwards;
- Leo Babauta of Zenhabits.net has a great list of suggestions titled “36 Lessons I’ve Learned About Habits“. There is a lot of useful stuff in there, but the one I particularly like is “How you deal with failure is key“. We often start off with many ambitious goals, only to throw our hands up in despair and give up as soon as we fail once. It’s almost like we use failure as an excuse to tell ourselves “see, I can’t do this“. Instead, heed Leo’s advice:
When many people fail, they feel bad about themselves and give up. This is why they have such a hard time changing habits. If instead they got back up and tried again, perhaps with an adjustment to their method (some new accountability, for example), they’d obviously have a much higher chance of success. The people who succeed at habits aren’t people who never fail — they’re people who keep going after they fail.”
- Rituals are key for Tony Schwartz (New York Times columnist on productivity and founder of The Energy Project). In “The Only Way to Get Important Things Done“, he emphasizes we should establish fixed times and routines for those habits most important to us. He gives getting eight hours of sleep each night as an example, which is key to his energy and productivity throughout the day. Therefore, he sticks to a rigid habit of going to bed always at the same time every day.
- The Power of Habit explains us a habit consists of 1) a cue, which then 2) triggers a routine and 3) leads to a reward. By being able to properly “diagnose” our habits, we can then change them by adjusting the routine. As Charles Duhigg (the author) explains in this video, this is not as easy as it sounds. Often the real reward driving a habit is not what we think it is.
One last word of warning: take it one step at a time. After going through all the expert advice above, you might feel empowered to change ten habits at once.
As you go about your day-to-day, changing even one habit forever will prove hard enough. Start with a simple one and use our free Daily Checklist Template to ensure it sticks for the long-term, then build on that success. You’re in a marathon, not a sprint!
* This statistic comes from a 2006 paper published by a Duke University researcher, as quoted from The Power of Habit.