Social media is awash in quotes, images, and memes about “the grind.” The grind is what busy people – those people who spend 2-3 hours a day in the gym, have a full-time job, and seemingly start a new side hustle every week – praise as the key to their life and work ethic. The grind relies on working through pain and fatigue and using your willpower to do all the things you have to do but do not necessarily enjoy. Want to know the secret of the grind? It leads to stress, lost productivity, burnout, and even self-harm.
Your body and mind only have so much energy. Each time we make a decision to do something or not do something, we use energy in that decision making process. When we deplete our store of energy we have trouble making any kind of decision, leading to bad decisions. Further, by continuously depleting our energy reserve by forcing ourselves to do work we do not want to do, we build resentment toward that task. And even if we like doing the work, when we are tired the work will not be very good. All of this will lead to a breakdown moment where we throw up our hands and run and hide from our work and our lives.
Habits area better way to structure our days and facilitate the work that needs to be done. Habits are composed of the little things we do every day. Our daily habits not only are how we spend our day, but they reflect our character traits and personalities. Our habits are us, and we are our habits. If we can fill our day with good habits, then we can be healthier and more productive. Habits allow our brains to go on “autopilot” for some things we do during the day. This allows us to save energy for bigger and more important work during the day.
Habits can also serve to put into the right mindset to accomplish a task. Writers of all kinds often have a specific place where they go to write and only write. Athletes and other high performing individuals often have rituals they go through before a game or performance to prepare themselves mentally. This can best be seen in the rituals of some of the repetitive behaviors of baseball players before stepping into the batter’s box or basketball players before shooting free throws. Habits can also lead us to do work. Instead of forcing ourselves to start a task, we condition our minds through habit to know that at a certain time or after a specific reminder, we start working on a project.
We can use our habits to be more productive without burning ourselves out.
James Clear has written and presented extensively on habits. His work has demonstrated that habits are composed of the “Three R’s”: Reminder, Response, and Reward. The reminder is the trigger that alerts the brain it is time to do something. The response is the habit itself, and the reward is the positive feeling or consequence from performing the habit. So in the mornings we might go for a run after we finish our second cup of coffee. In this example, the second cup of coffee is the reminder; the run is the response; and the runner’s high and increased health we get from running is the reward.
We can use this cycle to create new habits that help us achieve our goals and move toward our vision. First, we identify things we already do every day – like drink coffee in the mornings – and use those events as triggers for new habits, like running. At first, our reward might be the sense of accomplishment we get from doing something new, but eventually we will develop more significant rewards from that habit.
Another tip from James Clear on developing habits is to personally identify with your habit. If we wanted to start running regularly in the mornings, then we could proclaim, “I am the type of person who goes running every morning.” or “I am a runner.” We can then take small steps – at first – toward becoming that person. After enough small steps we have developed a solid foundation we can build upon. Eventually we will start to think like a runner and make decisions based upon what a runner would do.
Tim Ferris interviewed Jocko Willink a former Navy SEAL and all-around bad ass for his podcast and included nuggets from that interview in his book Tools of Titans. Willink has a great line in the interview when he remarked that if you want to be a strong person, then do what a strong person would do. When I read that I practically jumped out of my seat it resonated with me so much.
Now, I am not saying that all you have to do is proclaim yourself to be something to become that something. You cannot just say, “I am a great violinist.” and become first chair of the New York Symphony Orchestra. You have to do the work – and a lot of it – to get where you want to go, but identifying as your goal helps to put you in the right mindset to get there. There is an old saying, “The man who says he can and the man who says he cannot are both correct.” If you are struggling to develop a skill or complete a task, then monitor what you are telling yourself. Change the narrative in your head to “I am the kind of person who is good at…” or “I am the kind of person who does…”In order to be successful, not only do we have to add the habits we need, we have to remove the habits we do not need. Bad habits are tricky because we do them for a reason. We get some positive reward from drinking, smoking, or gorging ourselves on candy. Often these bad habits work as stress reducers, ways to alleviate boredom – albeit unhealthy ones – or as rewards in-and-of-themselves. The key to eliminating bad habits is to replace them with good habits using the triggers already in place.
In order to take a big step in our development, we can take the time to examine why we engage in these bad habits. This will lead us to greater self-awareness and help us gain a valuable insight into who we are as a person.
We can use these techniques to also improve our productivity. Sometimes procrastination is a message from our brains that this project is not for us. The fire and energy are not there because we do not care enough about the work. But procrastination and other obstacles our minds create is there because the work we are about to do is a big, meaningful, important, challenging, and because it is all of those things it is scary. Our brains do not like scary.
Habits can be used to over these mental obstacles. We can use triggers to start working on a project. We can either use triggers that normally happen in our days, or we can create triggers with calendar and phone reminders. The trigger happens, and our brains know it is time to start writing, researching, or whatever our big meaningful work for the day is.
Habits help us be intentional with our time without having to argue with our brains about all the other things we could be doing at the time. We can turn pretty much any work – going to the gym, writing, mowing the lawn – into a habit.
- Make a list of the habits you need to develop in order to reach your goals. Try using a mind mapping technique where you list your goal in the middle of the page and then all around it you list the habits you need to achieve it.
- Pick the most important habit you want to develop and think of a trigger – something you already do every day – that will spur you into performing the habit.
- Develop a personal identification with that habit and work on small steps that will help you develop that habit.
- Work on one habit at a time. Trying to do too much all at once is recipe for disaster.
- Make a list of the bad habits you want to replace.
- Throughout the day when you catch yourself engaging in or wanting to engage in the habit take some time to reflect on what put you in that mood. Was it something someone said? Something you did? Or a feeling that came over you? Make a list of these triggers.
- Using the triggers list, think about how you can replace that bad habit with something better for you. If you eat a slice of pie every night after dinner, then the first you can do is not have any pie or desserts in the house. Making it harder to engage in the bad habit is a good start. Next, think of other activities to do after dinner like go for a walk or read a book.
- From the list of triggers and alternative habits, develop a plan of action: “When I want to eat dessert after dinner, I will walk two miles.” Go so far as to map out several walking routes. You want to make it harder to engage in the bad habit and easier to engage in the good one.
- Just like with developing habits, work on one at a time.
Of course, for all of these habits, whether we are developing good ones or replacing bad ones, we need to understand why. When we have a strong enough why, we can accomplish a lot. But without that why, we will often let things slip and leave work undone. Always make sure you know the why to your actions.
Transform Your Habits by James Clear