Why Habits are Important for Success
The Habits of Success
It is not uncommon to see lists of the “habits of highly successful people”. These lists often contain some great inspiration for habits that you might want to try and adapt for your own life.
But more important than the specific habits themselves is the fact that so many successful people harness the power of habit to control elements of their lives and enable themselves to achieve.
Let’s take a look at the three main reasons why successful peoples use the power of habit, and what kinds of habits are the most conducive to success.
#1 Reason One: Habits Free Up Creative Capacity
When former U.S. President Barack Obama was asked why he wears the same suit every day he replied:
I’m trying to pare down my decisions. I don’t want to make decisions about what I’m eating or wearing. Because I have too many other decisions to make.
Barack Obama adopted a strict regimen for all the “little things” in order to ensure that he had the capacity to focus on the big things.
This is actually the evolutionary purpose of habit. We are triggered to do, and learn how to do, many things subconsciously so that we free up more of our higher brain level brain activity for important things, such as inventing stone tools, building pyramids, and making iPhones.
So, if you want to develop habits that help enable success, focus on habits that help you eliminate the small decisions that we make every day. Commit to habits that see that decision made in advance. For example:
- I will wake up at 6 am every day (no hitting the snooze button);
- This is when, where, and how I will exercise each week;
- This is what I will wear to work every day;
- First thing when I arrive in the office I will tackle one major task before checking emails.
Probably one of the best habits to try and develop for pretty much everyone is around what we eat. Research shows that the majority of people make around 200 food and eating-related decisions every day. That is a lot of decisions, and one of the reasons that diets are so hard to stick to. As a result, having a strict eating plan can not only help you feel better, but give you more capacity to think.
But for all of these kinds of “decision eliminating” habits, the commitment needs to be specific. The commitment should not be to “exercise three times a week”, as you would still need to decide when, where, and how to do that exercise. It should be a strict plan: swimming Monday morning at 7 am, yoga Wednesday night at 6 pm, and so forth.
The same goes for food-related commitments. The commitment should never be to “eat healthily”, or every time you are faced with a food-related decision you would still need to decide what that means, and therefore you are still draining your mental capacity with decisions.
Food-related commitments should be like “this week I will eat on Monday x for breakfast, y for lunch, and z for a snack, etc.” Similarly, you can have commitments such as “I don’t drink during the workweek,” or “I don’t drink coffee after 4 pm”. The commitments need to be specific enough that the decision is already made.
Once you remove a lot of these decisions from your daily life, you will be surprised by how much extra mental capacity you have.
#2 Reason Two: Prioritizes Important Activities
The reason that we need to limit the number of decisions that we make each day is that human beings suffer from decision making fatigue. The more decisions we make before a period of rest, the worse we are at making them.
As an example, a recent study found that it matters a lot what time of day a convict hits the parole board. Those that sat in front of the board at the end of the morning session before lunch, and also at the end of the day, were disproportionately likely to be denied parole. Why? The judges are suffering from decision making fatigue, and so go with the easiest safest answer, which is no, rather than to fully assess the case.
Of course, this is all subconscious and the judges are unaware of what they are doing, just as we are pretty much unaware as we reach for that glass of wine or block of chocolate late in the evening.
So successful people not only limit the number of decisions that they need to make every day, but they ensure that they do the things that are most important and require the most brainpower first. That is why you will often read advice such as “tackle a difficult task first thing when you get into the office”. In other words, use your fresh brain for creative tasks rather than answering emails.
Beethoven believed in waking up early and working until midday, when he was the most creative. It is probably no coincidence that Leonardo Da Vinci took a 20-minute nap every four hours, which would have helped refresh his decision making and creative synapses.
SEE ALSO: Five Habits of Morning People.
#3 Reason Three: It Helps Maintain Motivation
As a general rule, successful people aim high and have big ambitions. We are often told to set dreams that seem too daring to be achieved, as even if we only get halfway there we are doing well.
But while this helps us break our boundaries and stretch ourselves, it can also be discouraging. When the task seems too big or the endpoint too distant, it can be easy to lose hope.
That is why better advice is to dream big, figure out exactly what you need to do to achieve that dream, break those tasks up into a process or a group of habits, and then forget about the dream for a while.
In this way, you move your attention away from something that is unachievable, to something manageable that you need to achieve every day.
- Want to write a book? Commit to writing at least 1,000 words every day.
- Want to grow your business? Commit to making five cold calls to potential new clients every day.
- Want to build your expertise in a certain area? Commit to reading relevant news and articles for 30 minutes every day.
Focussing on these habits, which force you to do the things that you need to do rather than focussing on the things that you can’t, help you to stay on track and motivated.
Moreover, if you commit to “the process” for a certain period of time, for example, 30 days, you might find that you get a lot closer to your goal than you thought possible, which will give you the motivation to do what you need to for the next phase of the process.
Harnessing the power of habits is a great way to pursue success. Committing to habits allows you to free up your brain capacity to make better decisions, do your best work when you are in a prime mental state, and stay on track even when things are difficult.
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