When people ask for advice around habits, most of the answers they get fall into the “do this, not that” category.
Based on our own subjective experience, we all come to see some habits as good and others as bad. As a result, everybody always recommends what worked for them. The specific tactics that helped them succeed. Wake up at 5, blend your coffee with butter, use this particular pen.
But those aren’t universal. They may or may not work for you. It’s impossible to say whether they’re good or bad objectively, and definitely not in advance. They only hold meaning in the unique context of the person who recommen-ded them to you. What’ll happen when you adopt them? Who knows! Whether they help you or not depends entirely on trial and error.
That’s why, much more so than specifics, I’m interested in thought patterns. The habits behind the habits. The psychology of changing our behavior and the mindsets that allow some people to eventually harness the outcomes of their experiments to reach their goals. Those differ a lot from person to person too, but they’re all supposed to empower you on your own, unique journey. Not just give you a hack to solve one distinct problem.
Each of these “habits of the mind” is its own toolbox more so than a hammer. It gives you a unique and new angle, but one you can use to process millions of situations in your life and change as needed after each one.
Here are some of these thought patterns I’ve found over the years and have been trying to cultivate ever since.
1. Learn to be self-aware for the majority chunk of the time you’re awake.
What you want is behavioral awareness. A self-directed, in-the-moment awareness of your own behavior.
We tend to think of self-awareness as a character trait, but that only holds up on a long time frame. In the short term, it’s mostly a cognitive state. It lives on a spectrum. You dip in and out of it throughout your day.
The more of your time you can spend in self-awareness, the better. This can get absolutely maddening, but it’s necessary because it allows you to constantly evaluate what you’re doing.
“I’m biting my nails. That’s a bad habit. I’ll try to address it some time.”
“This article feels like it’ll be a hit. Let me monitor if it actually does well.”
Being in self-awareness mode is the heart rate monitor of how well your behavior maps to your true goals.
Don’t turn it off for too long.
2. If a pattern is easy to repeat, find a way to use it well.
Everything is relative and so are habits. For me, it’s easier to stare at a blinking cursor on an empty screen than to watch the loading bar crash on a video render. Both are nerve-racking, but one makes me think harder while the other has me wanting to throw my laptop out the window.
Will either of those work for you? I have no idea. That’s why you need self-awareness. To even be able to find the patterns that come easy to you, and then optimize your life around them.
Since we spend the majority of our time on things that aren’t yet working, it’s important to reduce friction, make the process of failing somewhat enjoyable, and bank on areas in which you have a naturally high tolerance for pain.
3. Reframe problems as challenges as much as you can.
He took us to the greenhouse and showed us spots of brown mold that had begun creeping over the leaves on the tomato plants. “Ze tomatoes get sick sometimes,” he said. “It’s a big…how do you say…a big pr…”
A problem? I suggested in my mind, assuming that was the word he was looking for.
But then Emmanuel smiled and said, “Ah, project. It’s a big project.”
No one ever says “heck yeah, I lost money on this business idea” or “heck yeah, I’ve got chronic back pain.” But you have to keep an open mind to deal with these things.
If you look at them as challenges, not problems that will follow you around, you can deal with life’s trials much faster. A great way to do this is to replace the word altogether. Update your vocabulary. Every time you want to say ‘problem,’ say ‘project instead.’ It will make a big difference.
4. Train yourself to re-focus on the smallest relevant action.
Next Play Speed is the time it takes a player to shift his attention to the next move in the game after the last one has ended — regardless of its outcome. Michael Jordan’s Next Play Speed was less than a second. He’d score, run back to defend, steal the inbound pass, lose the ball, then run down the opponent.
In life, your Next Play Speed is the time it takes you to re-focus on the next, smallest, most relevant action you can take.
The faster you can do that after you complete something or get rattled, the better. Improving your Next Play Speed will also make you happier because it leaves no time to worry about the big picture. You’ll just take the next step.
5. Decide slowly, act quickly.
In basketball, the next play is obvious. There’s only attack or defense. Life is more complex than that. Ironically, that means slowing down after your last move is the best way to improve your Next Play Speed.
Picking the right move always beats picking the wrong one, but faster.
This isn’t always easy to do, because checking ever more boxes on the same list comes natural to us. But we’re not playing one big game of basketball. We all have more than one project to work on. Dozens, maybe hundreds. From time to time, we need to switch from one to another to stay on course.
Speed is important, but ultimately, what you do matters more than how fast you go. Therefore, you should take your time in deciding what to do, then be with the implementation. Making decisions is strategy. Executing is tactics.
6. Obsess over your intentions, not their effects.
The biggest movements in the world are built by the people with the strongest intentions, not the biggest goals. Gandhi, The Beatles, Shakespeare — these people were obsessed with their causes and their work, not their followers.
That’s not just healthier, easier, and more honorable than being purely outcome-oriented, it also acknowledges reality:
You can’t control who will follow you.
As much time as we should spend on choosing our own actions wisely, as little should go towards other people’s choices. Because the number of those we control is zero. Zero. All you can do is lead by example.
The people who change the world are the people whom millions choose to follow. But that’s not something they can influence. Usually, what they’re focused on is how rigorously they should pursue their intentions at any given time. Whether they should apply more force or less. Context. Timing. Those matter. Not how fast your graph of followers goes up and to the right.
So don’t worry about the outcome, worry about why you’re doing it in the first place. Are you struggling just to struggle? Secretly wishing for a shortcut? Or do you mean what you’re about to do? Those questions deserve answers.
7. Make yourself accountable for everything.
When you combine all the above — carefully picking projects, being strategic, focusing on small actions, and having good intentions — what you end up doing is what, ultimately, we all need to do to achieve our goals in life:
We take responsibility for things without waiting for the world to give it to us.
No more “that’s not part of my job.” No more “it wasn’t my fault.” I know it wasn’t. It almost usually isn’t. But the people we admire take responsibility anyway. They always have skin in the game. We need to do the same.
There are two ways to hold ourselves accountable: internally and externally.
Internal accountability means keeping the promises you make to yourself. That’s very hard without voicing them and so, for most of us, internal accountability isn’t enough, especially in the early stages. Sticking to your own deadlines is hard when there’s no real punishment for not meeting them.
But when you say “I will do this for you on that day” and then don’t deliver? Ouch. That hurts. As a writer, you might say: “I will publish an article every week and send it to you via email.” Sure, in the beginning not that many people rely on you, but with each next person choosing to take you up on your promise, the pressure to keep it grows. That’s external accountability.
What’s beautiful is that, over time, external accountability begets internal accountability. Since you’re taking your own, irrational, self-imposed goals and deadlines out of your head and into the real world, relying on yourself gets easier — even without externalizing every aspiration. With every kept promise, you’ll trust yourself a little more.
Soon, you’ll deliver lots of value to many people — and can do so on schedule.
8. Remember tomorrow.
Did you know that rice farming is 10 to 20 times harder than any other kind of farming? Malcom Gladwell wrote about it in Outliers. It’s why discipline is still so highly valued in Asia today. If past generations hadn’t had it, they wouldn’t have survived. In one of my favorite Kung Fu movies, the master says:
“Everything we do is not for today — but for tomorrow.”
He has a point. We are standing on the shoulders of past generations. I was really lucky to be born in Germany, but even my great-grandma lived through two world wars and walked seven miles to work — one-way. She’s one of many reasons I can have a job where I chill on my bed, listen to music, and write, so the least I can do is think about tomorrow and not be so self-concerned.
Not everyone had the advantage of growing up in such a prosperous place, but most of us aren’t trying to catch their own dinner either. We know we’ll be here tomorrow — and because we do, we should make decisions that make it a better one. Even if one day, we won’t be the ones seeing the results.
9. Learn to love the boring days.
Now you might say, “oh Nik, that all sounds so conscientious and not at all fun,” but I fundamentally believe a good life can be both at the same time.
If you live to be 82 years old, that’s about 30,000 days. And guess what? No matter what you do, 27,000 of those days will be boring. Normal, routine, nothing out of the ordinary days. If you don’t somehow learn to love those, you’re in for a disappointing ride regardless of how many highs you achieve.
Deep down, we know happiness lies in the little things. The side effects. The random stuff that happens along the way. But if we don’t start learning to cherish those little things in real-time, we’ll miss all of them until it’s too late.
10. Be relentless in forgiving yourself for your mistakes and regrets.
Finally, none of this is worth anything if you don’t love yourself. I know it’s hard, I know it takes practice, but emotions are states we can choose — and out of all of them, being calm might be the most important one.
Calmness balances everything. You can deal with anything when you’re calm. Excitement, sadness, frustration, joy, anger. There are many ways to find calm when you need it, but forgiveness is the nearest, easiest, most rational one. It’s always available, instant, and universal. It’s a light switch you have to learn to find, but when you do, brightness floods the entire building.
The best things in life are self-paced. If it’s worth having, you’ll likely have a lifetime to get it. Think about it. Love, money, fame, friendship, justice, freedom — you can’t find these in a day or even a year. So why kick yourself for being slow? Learn to enjoy your pace.
Forgive yourself as if your life depends on it.This way, you’ll eliminate all friction. No more regrets. No more dwelling on mistakes. Keep moving. You’ll also learn to see rest and procrastination as parts of the journey, not obstacles.
As long as you forgive yourself, life always makes sense.
Habits are a function of time. They come and they go. They should. You don’t need the same routine, the same exercises, the same health regimen all your life. These things must change.
Thinking, however, is an infinite habit. It’s hardwired into our minds and it runs until the day we die. Like all the others it constantly changes, but at the same time, working on it pays off forever.
Only when you do can you reject dogma and live out your own, wonderful little version of this beautiful thing we all call life.