MDHCo - Success Habits

On Good Habits – Cultivate Success Habits to Conquer Your World

In our fourth and final installment of On Good Habits, we take a look at certain powerful habits (known as keystone habits) which tend to have a beneficial spillover into other areas of your life.  We also examine the habits often credited to the success of high achievers, the so-called success habits.

In Part 1 of the On Good Habits series, you learned what habits are and why good habits are essential to developing personal excellence. Part 2 detailed the science of habit formation and the neurological loop governing all habits. In Part 3, you learned how to start new good habits and how to change bad ones.  If you’re unfamiliar with any this material, you may want to review it now.

By now, you must be familiar of Wil Durant’s quote, “you are what you repeatedly do.  Excellence, then, is not an act, but habit.”  Not convinced? According to one study, as much as 45% of all behavior is the result of our habits.  This is but one of the reasons that cultivating the proper habits is so vitally important to your success.

But all habits are not created equal.  As Duhigg explains in The Power of Habit, some habits are more important than others.  These habits are called keystone habits and they have the ability to spark change in other areas tangentially related to the particular habit.  For example, exercise is known as a keystone habit.  Those who exercise are far more likely to live a healthy lifestyle than those who do not.

Duhigg defines a keystone habit as “a pattern that has the power to start a chain reaction, changing other habits as it moves through the organization.”  Duhigg found keystone habits at the organizational level.  Specifically, at Alcoa, upper management’s focus on employee health and safety transformed their business.  Employee satisfaction and productivity increased, as did profits.

But, as noted above, keystone habits exist in the personal context too.  Duhigg notes there are three essential qualities of keystone habits:

  1. They extend small senses of victory (this, in turn, creates sense of accomplishment which the mind begins to crave more of);
  2. They act as a substrate for other good habits to form and grow; and
  3. They instill a sense of confidence, giving momentum to engage in more.

What’s more, keystone habits are generally no more difficult to form than any other habit – yet the spillover effect is demonstrable.

Keystone Habits

Here are some of the most important keystone habits, the cultivation of which will help you grow and develop at an exponential rate:

1. Active Goal-Setting

It may seem obvious, but some people don’t physically write-out their goals. This is a huge mistake.  If you haven’t committed a goal to writing, it is merely a wish or a dream.  Active goal-setting is the anti-thesis to a mere wish: you must write out your goals and the steps needed to achieve them; you must make your goals SMART (specific, measurable, achievable, relevant, and time-constrained); you must have big goals (BHAGs) and small ones; and you must re-assess your goals and how you will achieve them daily.

Having written goals is essential to charting the course of your life and staying on track.  Sometimes your goals can be at odds with one another.  If you don’t realize they’re at cross-purposes, you may be stuck spinning your wheels. Active goal-setting will help illuminate these problems and allow you to choose the overriding goal, rather than reacting to a situation.  Try planning three specific tasks each day to move your closer to the accomplishment of your goals, big and small.  This will help ward off complacency and growth stagnation. By making active goal-setting a habit, you’ll become goal-oriented and develop a bias toward action, making you even more productive.  It’s a win-win-win.

2. Effective Time Management

Effective time management is crucial to personal and professional development.  It’s not just about scheduling your time, but also prioritizing your time and engaging in tasks when you’ll be the most productive for the type of work.  We all necessarily make trade-offs with our time.  Enlightened time managers have the same trade-offs to make, but they are clear on what they are giving up and why.  Using a matrix like the one below, you should be able to categorize all tasks into one of four based on urgency and importance.  All decisions are either important or unimportance, urgent or not urgent.  You should limit tasks that are neither important nor urgent (Quadrant 4).  Avoid interruptions by tasks that are urgent but not important (Quadrant 3).  Focus on activities that are not urgent but are important (Quadrant 2).  Manage those critical activities that are both urgent and important (Quadrant 1).

As mentioned above, the enlightened time manager also schedules work around peak productivity times (which varies from person to person).  But irrespective of that, it’s often best to “Eat that Frog!” This is a term popularized by Mark Twain, meaning to tackle the hardest task at the beginning of the day.  Brian Tracey has an excellent book dedicated to the art of eating frogs (doing the hardest things first). Try managing your time instead of it managing you.  With time, you’ll see your effectiveness and productivity skyrocket as you eliminate more and more of what does produce the outcomes you desire.

3. Regular Exercise

Exercise is perhaps the most often cited of the keystone habit, and for good reason: people who exercise are more likely to drink plenty of water, maintain a healthy diet, have regular check-ups with a health professional, and resist the temptations of drug and alcohol abuse.  What’s more, regular exercise is a great way to relieve stress and anxiety, and it has been shown both to increase energy levels and facilitate more restful sleep. Thus, by developing this one habit, you’ll not only look, feel, and be healthier, you’ll also be more agreeable and productive.  Finally, scheduling regular exercise forces you to cut waste and be more efficient, going hand-in-hand with the effective time management skills you are committed to developing.

 4. Daily Gratitude

One of the simplest changes with the most dramatic effect in my life has been expressing gratitude and appreciating what I have each and every morning.  Modern society has conditioned us to think about what we don’t have – work hard so you can afford that home, go on social media to see what other people are wearing or what exotic destination they are venturing too.  Even “get better, achieve more.”  Implicit in these statements is that what we have isn’t enough.  This can leave us feeling unsatisfied and empty.   While it is axiomatic to say that we believe in striving for personal excellence, the importance of being mindful, living in the moment, and appreciating the good in your life is essential.  And practicing gratitude as a daily habit can have an enormous transformational effect on your life.  If you are reading this, then you are alive. Every day is a gift. Instead of getting caught up on what you don’t have, focus on the things that are going well for you.  In this way, you’ll shift your mentality from scarcity to one of abundance.  You’ll feel happier and more satisfied, and you’ll naturally be more generous and kind to others, which means that people will be more generous and kind back to you. Start a gratitude journal today.  After all, you reap what you sow.

5. Learning & Curiosity

“If I am through learning, I am through.” John Wooden, the most winningest coach of all time.

When you stop learning, you stop growing.  And if you’re not progressing, you’re regressing. Never have these words rung so true.  We live in a society where new skills techniques are being developed each day, new platforms for e-commerce and business supersede the old each week, and more information is being created each day than in all history prior to the Internet. Yes, each day.  Learning – keeping abreast of the latest developments and techniques, as well as improving skills and acquiring new ones – has never been more important.  What worked great yesterday, may not even exist tomorrow [e.g., CD Players, Western Union].   While it’s impossible to keep up with everything, you should have a specific plan in place to develop the skills you want or need.  And if you make learning a lifelong habit, you’ll unlikely be caught off guard when farmer visits the turkey on the 1,000th day. [Black Swan link].

So how do you develop “learning” as a habit? This Harvard Business Review Article discusses this issue.  Most importantly, to cultivate a learning habit, you should be clear on exactly what your goals are, and what benefits will be derived from habitual learning.  Having a clear intention will help you set realistic goals for learning.  We suggest starting small –  you won’t be able to learn Japanese overnight, but you might be able to memorize all the katakana in just a couple days. Finally, joining an interest group of like-minded people and engaging in discussion with them is key.  Do this in person, to the extent possible.  Join the book club, the arboreal society, or a local shinnichi group for gaijin.

6. Family Dinners

The final keystone habit is for the family man or woman: routinely having family dinners, that is, having your whole family around the same table for a distraction-free meal, has incredible spillover effect both in terms of strengthening family bonds, but also your children’s confidence, emotional control, and performance in school.  Whether it’s a home-cooked meal or take-out Chinese food, turn off the TV, put away the phones, and eat more family dinners! And be prepared to talk to one another, face-to-face.  It’ll likely be one of the most rewarding parts of your day.

Success Habits

Success habits, like keystone habits, are powerful routines which spill over into other aspects of life.  Success habits, however, are something greater, more profound, and directly contribute to the success of high achievers.  Success habits allow you to do more with what you have, be it time, willpower, or other resources.  Success habits keep you motivated and focused on what you have articulated as important (as opposed to being reactive).  Success habits help you garner as many small victories over the mundane as possible, so you have the momentum and energy to tackle the extraordinary.    Success habits have been causally linked to top performers’ achievement, and can have a material and demonstrable effect on your life.  Here are several success habits, the cultivation of which is essential to developing a mindset of personal excellence:

1. Wake Up Early

Waking up early – between 4am and 5:30am local time – is often credited as a factor of CEOs’ and high achievers’ success.  This Business Insider article mentions both Disney CEO Bob Iger and Square/Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey share this as one of their success habits.  Jocko Willink, former Navy Seal Commander and Best-Selling Author, gets up around 4am each day:

In a recent Success Magazine interview, Willink gave three reasons why he gets up early.  First, staying in bed is easy, getting up is hard.  If you get up and “get after it,” as he says, you’ve already won your first battle of the day.  And this discipline sets the tone for the rest of the day.  Second, waking up before anyone else gives you free time to do your morning rituals, reflect, get creative, whatever need to get done.  Since everyone else is asleep, there’s no one to bother you.  Finally, waking up early helps cultivate willpower.  You’ll feed good, mentally strong, and ready to attack the day.  Start tomorrow by setting your alarm clock 30 minutes earlier for the rest of the week.  Next week, try another 30. And so on.  Need some help? Our article on How to Wake Up Refreshed has some tips to get even Rip Van Winkle out of bed.

2. Make Your Bed

After waking up, try making your bed. It doesn’t need to be perfect, but it should be visually appealing – no sheets in disarray or pillow cases coming off.  Making your bed is important for a few reasons, most importantly, it allows you to get another “easy win” under your belt in the morning – helping to create momentum and a bias toward action.   Another added benefit for those who work from home (especially, from the bedroom), having a tidy room increases productivity and helps maintain attention and focus.  This trick has been used by many from U.S. army officers to Tibetan monks as one of their success habits – and for good reason: it works well.

A final benefit, according to Psychology Today, is that bed makers are more likely to enjoy their jobs, own their own home, exercise regularly, and feel well-rested, than those who do not practice this one-minute habit.

3. Daily Routines & Book-Ending

We’ve said it many times before – your attention-span and willpower are finite resources.  You can only process so much information in a day before you begin suffering fatigue.  Every decision you make – no matter how inconsequential – drains your energy.  As we discussed earlier in this series, habits are your body’s way of coping.  By standardizing certain tasks and moving them to be processed by the basal ganglia instead of the prefrontal cortex, we free up the latter for higher-level decision-making.  By standardizing your day, you not only free up your cognitive powers for other endeavors, you also have a significant opportunity to design your day around the habits you choose, allowing you to cultivate good habits and act in a designed manner with relatively little expenditure of mental energy.  And that’s why designing daily routines and book-ending your day is one of the best success habits for near immediate results

4. Planning & Review

Planning and review are often over-looked as success habits.  Starting your day off with a clear intention of what you want to get done is essential.  As we’ve said before, if you want to get to where you want to go, you need a plan on how to get there.  The same goes for your life and career.  It has been suggested that planning your day – the night before – has the additional benefit of letting your subconscious work on your plans while you sleep.  What’s more, it allows you to immediately tackle your day, or eat that frog, or whatever you need to do.

By taking time to reflect on your productivity at the end of the day, you ensure that you don’t get too far off course. You didn’t get everything done – why? Was it simply too much to do in the time allotted? Were you distracted? Or did something more important and urgent come up?  By taking the time to analyze your day in these terms, you’ll also get better at estimating activity duration, see where your attention is diverted, and diagnose any critical issues.  By repeating this process each evening, you’ll quickly learn the patterns and processes which work best for you.

5. Meditation

“Meditation more than anything in my life was the biggest ingredient of whatever success I’ve had.” says Ray Dalio, founder of Bridgewater Capital.  That’s a bold statement from a self-made billionaire. But research lends credence to adopting this practice as one of your success habits: meditation has been linked to reduced stress, enhanced cognitive function, productivity, and better physical health, among other things.  Other notable practitioners include: Oprah Winfrey (Harpo Productions); Tony Robbins (Motivational Speaker); Rupert Murdoch (News Corp); Bill Ford (Ford Motor Company); Russell Simmons (Def Jam Records); and Tim Ferriss (NYT Best-Selling Author).  There are definitely many, many more: Ferriss notes that at least 80 percent of the high achievers he interviews (including hedge fund billionaires, professional athletes, and politicians) use some form of daily mindfulness practice.  That may be listening to a single song on repeat every day during a run; for others, it’s practicing Transcendental Meditation (known as, TM) twice daily for 20 minutes, or using an app, like Headspace or Calm, for guided meditation.

If you’re new to the practice meditation, consider reading 5 Steps to Making Meditation a Daily Habit on Buddhaimonia for good advice.  As with starting any new habit — being consistent in time, place and context, and keeping it simple, cannot be overstated.  Using Headspace’s “Take 10” is a good place to start for guided meditation.  It’s free to use and lets you dip your toes in risk-free. All it takes is 10-20 minutes a day for 10 days to cultivate one of the most important success habits.

6. Tracking Diet and Spending

“What gets measured gets managed.” Peter Drucker.  So if you want to manage your weight or your finances, you need to routinely track and measure them.  In the Power of Habit, Duhigg cites a 2009 study by the National Institute of Health, where participants keeping a food journal lost on average about twice as much weight as those who didn’t.  The participants who kept the journal were able to notice routines in their eating habits – like everyday at 4pm I have a chocolate bar – and manage them – instead, I’ll have a granola bar ready at my desk when the craving hits.  Duhigg noted that keeping the journal “created a structure that helped other habits to flourish.”

Likewise, we recommend keeping a spending journal, where you physically write down your expenses each day.  Yes, there are programs that can integrate with your Bank of America account and download all the information automatically.  This is not what you want to do.  The process of putting each expenditure into your list is as important as the list itself.  You Need a Budget (YNAB) – the awesome personal accounting software suite – went so far as to purposefully leave out direct importing of expenses. Note: this has since changed (apparently because people loathe logging expenses), but they still require you to approve each imported transaction because, as they say, “awareness is a big part of why YNAB works” [emphasis, mine].  If creating a full-blown food journal or expense log isn’t for you at the moment, try hacking the situation with the Tiny Habits method.  Consider logging just one meal each day or just one expenditure of the day.  With a little effort and time, this tiny habit will take hold, lead to more tracking, and, hopefully, an enhanced awareness of what you eat and where you spend your money.  Knowing is half the battle?


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