Normal humans have things they don’t like about themselves. They also have the ability to project into the future and imagine a different self that they want to be. The problem of the ages, of course, is how to bridge the gaping chasm between the two.
But there’s a behavioral hack. An intriguing human phenomenon is that we save emotional, motivational, and decision-making energy by defaulting to what we already did in the past. Behaviors that are repeated enough to form patterns we call habits. (For some great reading on this point, check out the immensely helpful book, Atomic Habits. Figuring out how to change those from patterns we don’t like to patterns we hope to be is the holy grail of self-improvement. So how?
There’s an important related concept, this time from a book called Essentialism. Most of us spend most of our time doing things that have no cumulative benefit for our lives. To quote a friend, “98% of our efforts and activity are a waste of time.” To use a metaphor, it’s like trying to swim a few feet behind a wave, instead of getting on front and riding it on a surfboard.
But what if we could cut back the clutter of a thousand, tiny, annoying tasks and make a few front-end investments in ourselves? Certainly we would suffer a time-cost at the beginning—maybe the first week or the first month. That’s why we never get around to making those investments in the first place. But new skills learned would eventually pay themselves off in greater time saved and cutting out stress?
In short, how can we put aside the tyranny of the urgent and create habits that are carefully, consciously chosen for our long-term benefit?
I’m hardly claiming to have solved the problem of human behavior. But I have hit upon a method that works extraordinarily well for me and has, in fact, changed my life. Humans are similar enough, I suspect that I’m not the only one this would help.
Setting a streak means determining to do something daily, no matter what. It’s called a streak because you accumulate how many days you’ve gone without missing and start trying to protect your record. It’s the personal equivalent of the stereotypical workplace sign—“187 days without accident.” Streaks are motivating because you can look back on what you accomplished. Your past success accumulates motivation for the future.
For me, this started with exercise. I would go days or weeks doing nothing and then binge on a 90-minute run. Ironically, the next time I thought of exercise, I didn’t want to because it would mean a massive commitment, rearranging my entire day.
I finally manage to change my habits by switching to quick, 7-minute daily workout routines. It’s not much at all and imminently doable. But the catch is that I have to do it every, single day. EVERY. SINGLE. DAY. Meaning no days missed for 688 days now. I’d love to claim that’s because I’m an incredibly disciplined person. It’s actually because I have invested so many days in building my streak, I can’t imagine breaking it at this point. How could I ever start over? That’s the only thing that kept me doing it when I had the flu or was teaching 8 hours a day. But it’s a good pressure that has changed my life.
I’m now in the early days of setting routines on key areas I wanted to change for years. These are the most important things I should be doing every single day, but they get crowded out by the ocean of tiny details I’ll never remember doing. This helps me push them back into the high priority they deserve to define my life patterns.
The app I’m using lets me set all kinds of goals with a built-in timer. It takes all of the pain out of the process of tracking and lets me focus on the goals themselves. I would say it is one of only 5–6 apps that have significantly and tangibly changed the way I live my life.
Some Practical Suggestions:
- Be realistic. Set goals you can maintain even on the worst of days. There are days when I go big on exercise. But I have a fall-back, minimum requirement low enough that I have still done it even when I was sick.
- Small, constant consistency beats impossible ambitions with no results. My wife (a mother of four people under 10) models this well. Every morning before the kids get up, she reads from 5+ books—theology, philosophy of education, poetry, science, literature. But her secret is reading 2–3 pages or 5–7 minutes from each book. It’s imminently doable and incredibly powerful.
- Refuse to miss a day. Ever. Once you are committed, stick with it. Challenge yourself not to miss anything whatever the reason.
- Have a tracker. For me this is always an app. You want something that’s available everywhere, painlessly easy to keep up with, and able to record lots of tasks. I use “Streaks” on iOS and similar alternatives exist for Android.
- Know your rules. You do have to give room for the uncontrollable realities of life without letting it become an empty excuse. Over time you will form unarticulated rules governing your streaks. Does walking count as exercise? Do audio books substitute for reading? For instance, I still count my goal to “go to bed by 10:30” as done if circumstances were legitimately out of my control—a late meeting or emergency. A helpful solution here is to actually write out your self-governing rules as they develop. Make them flexible enough that you can still succeed on your worst days but rigid enough that your goals are still meaningful.
A final challenge. Little, time-destroying details are inescapable—the cruft of life. But it’s tragic if those things become life. Don’t just exist. Every day you have is a stewardship given to you by a gracious Creator. He expects you to invest and have a return on what He put into your hands (Matt 25:14–30). That means thinking, planning and structuring your daily routines. I hope that some of the methods here will be a help to you as they have helped me.