I have always been a creature of habit. As a kid, my mom would pack the same exact lunch for me everyday, always asking if I wanted a sandwich other than PB&J, but I never did. Growing up, my parents created many positive habits in my life like sleeping early, doing homework when I got home from school, and other ones along that vein. As a child, they were all a pain. However, as I grew up I came to appreciate these immensely! I came to love the long term consistency that can be attained through the building of habits.
Exercise as My Cornerstone
I was an antsy kid with lots of excess energy. I played baseball for almost 10 years and swapped that for running when I got to highschool. Looking back, this was a turning point for me. I didn’t try hard in school until I started running, until then I just skated by as school work mostly came easy to me. I would focus more on school because I knew if I didn’t do well my parents wouldn’t let me do cross country or track. In college, as I got faster and more invested in my collegiate triathlon team, this only accelerated my good habit formation. I became incredibly consistent with exercise, even feeling bad when a workout went poorly (due to something in my control like no sleeping enough), or even missing a session altogether.
When I exercise daily, it automatically makes me productive. It makes me eat healthier because I don’t want to feel bad when I step out the door for a run. It makes me sleep enough so that I’m not drained all day and recover properly. It makes me productive at work so I don’t have to stay late and I can spend the time outdoors enjoying the sunshine on my bike. It makes my life scheduled because I’m now at the point where I feel guilty if I don’t allot time to exercise.
One of my best friends started a daily running streak (he’s up to nearly 3 years in a row running at least 1 mile, but long term average of around 8 or 9 miles per day). This inspired me to start, I allowed myself more than just running (swim/bike/run). I’m now up to over 2 years (about 800 days). This was difficult to get started and took some pretty serious self motivation the first few months, but once I got the ball rolling it wasn’t even a 2nd thought. I don’t think “should” I workout today, only “when”.
Habits are also compounding. I started this streak towards the beginning of my final year at university and although this year had some of my hardest classes, I got some of the best grades and focused more. My study habits increased, I slept more, I ate better — basically everything improved. Now 2 years later, all of these habits have stuck with me and more have grown as a result. I’m not trying to say I’m a productivity machine that can’t be stopped, of course I’ll have lazy days, but on the whole, my life has measurably improved.
Exercise is my cornerstone habit, and I’m sure you have one too. On your best/most productive days, there is probably something specific that happens on all of those days. Maybe it’s the days you slept early the night before, maybe it’s the days you took a walk at lunch. It doesn’t matter what it is, but having this one habit and recognizing that this can be the key to developing more and more habits.
Replacing Bad Habits
Cultivating habits is a focus of mine, but all habits were not created equal. For example, in 8th grade I’d walk 2 miles home after school and without fail I’d bring $2.18 to Jack in the Box and get 4 tacos, or I’d stop at a local donut shop that would sell their donuts half off in the afternoons. Clearly, not the smartest idea for my health, yet I did it daily without question. Same could be said for spending 3 hours on Netflix every evening to wind down from a long day. I’m not advocating against Netflix (because who doesn’t love the Great British Baking Show?) or TV, but I am against using them as a procrastination method to distract yourself from what you probably should be doing. Definitely great in moderation, but you should be cognizant of when you overdo something and it becomes intrusive on other things you need to do.
The hardest habits to form are ones when you have to break a negative one you already follow. For example, I’m most productive and find I have the best days when I’m up early. But for all of high school and most of college, I wouldn’t even start my homework until after I’d eaten dinner and watched hours of Netflix. It was a vicious cycle of sleeping in late and slogging through the day, just to do it again because I was too tired to do anything else. It took me 2 years of battling because I would tell myself “I’m not a morning person.” Probably would have taken a month or two if I wasn’t limiting myself!
Habits in Relation to FI
To form good habits, you have to be intentional, goal oriented, and be aware of the delayed gratification. Swapping a $15 takeout meal for a healthier, cheaper, home-cooked alternative one time isn’t going to make you richer and healthier right away, but repeating this same action over months and years, will. Coincidentally, these same traits of effective habit builders, I find are also the traits of people that can succeed in their pursuit of financial independence. When starting out, it’s easy to get bummed out by thinking how long it’ll take you to get to “your number.” But if you read up on how investing works, automate it, and keep up to date with your finances regularly to stay on track without obsessing over it, you’ll get there.
Automation is the key, because that’s what a habit is. A habit is your brain performing a task you’ve done so many times that it physically requires less energy to perform. You don’t waste time thinking whether or not you should be doing something, it just happens. If you haven’t, I highly recommend reading “The Power of Habit” by Charles Duhigg. He beautifully discusses the upsides and downsides of positive and negative habits and their long term effects. This book was an absolute eye opener for me!
I’m currently working on a few small habits. It’s important not to take on too much at once, although this is a very easy to do. If you do that, it’ll be much more difficult for them to become ingrained in you. I’m currently trying to read and write daily. It could be as little as a small list of notes and ideas for a future post, and just 5 minutes of reading, but it’s something, and I know it’ll build over time.
What’s your cornerstone habit, and what are some habits you’re actively trying to form now? Do you have any special techniques or tips? Let me know, I’d love to chat about it!