Their habits require habits!

Tuesday, January 1st, 2019

Ryan Holiday explains how to develop better habits in 2019. I’ve edited down his advice:

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.

Create a Physical Reminder

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.

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.

Piggyback New Habits on Old Habits

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.

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.

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.

Make It Interesting

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.

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.

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!

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.


  1. Sam J. says:

    Thanks for reviewing this.

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