I have been fascinated with the idea of developing habits for the last few years. It has dawned on me that, frequently, success in any endeavour is impacted not just by hard work, an ability to ‘see’ an opportunity when it comes knocking but also by the kind of habits you develop.
Between the singular activities that might have an influence on your level of success in a particular area, and the kind of habits you create to sustain an atmosphere conducive to success, it is the habits that are far more influential.
It is habit, I believe, more than the other, that seems to drive entrepreneurial success. It is the reason why while there are those who have achieved success in one endeavour, there are many others who achieve success repeatedly in whatever they do. It is habit that is behind the success of those, who having achieved success in one area and then failed, are able to then climb their way back from failure to repeat their success.
Consequently, my journey has been earmarked by my endeavour to create both good yet lasting habits. One such habit that I’ve had some success with now (in my second year) is that of waking early. I am, by nature, someone who feels she is at her best, creatively, towards the end of the day. I take time to come into my day. While this has been my way of life for a long time, having now a young family and all the associated demands that young children place on me has a huge part to play in this decision.
The nights are quieter – you can actually hear yourself think. However, I was finding that energy levels were getting depleted quite fast and at night, I was battling the ‘spirit is willing but the flesh is weak’ game. So, with the same 24 hours in a day as everyone else, I was left to wonder what the other options were. Since I didn’t want to cut into my already deprived sleep levels, I decided that there was really no way around the obvious solution – to get up earlier. My days were usually starting around 7AM and I was now considering moving that up to about 5.30AM.
I will admit that the early days were rough on me. It was not the early waking so much that was the problem but the fact that I refused to make some necessary changes to other parts of my routine – changes that were critical to how well I executed this new plan. For example, adjusting sleep patterns and getting to bed earlier. Having already developed a lifestyle where lots of important work was reserved for the night, I found it hard to break the flow and stop abruptly to simply go to bed. Setting alarms to ‘switch off’ and just pile into bed sadly, didnt work. Making my mind up that it was needed and taking a rational approach was also of no great help.
But over time, the accumulated lack of sleep took its toll and nature took its course. Adjustments were forcefully made and I found that I was succeeding not only in waking up early but also completing some solid work in the morning. Over a period of months, I found myself looking back and realising that, hey, I had successfully started and built a good habit.
One of the best things about starting early is the freshness of your approach. Physically, you’ve been renewed and so while mentally, you still need to make the leap, the body is ready to take on whatever you throw at it. Whereas, at night, the ravages of a whole day’s activities, both mental and physical, definitely ensure that you are not at your best.
Perhaps foolishly, I was also trying to build other habits at the same time. Once I opened my mind to the idea that I was developing these new habits, things started to come together. I began to ‘see’ the kind of articles that would help me make the right choices. I started to look for the appropriate kind of information and support around me that would help ensure that my efforts were rewarded and unhindered. And I was gung-ho to forge ahead with building another habit.
I knew that habit building would take time and was best achieved when tackled one at a time. It would be stressful and a recipe for disaster to try to spread myself so thin. But having started one habit and seeing quick success developing, I was buoyed by this success and believed I could do it.
Writing daily, in my blog, was the second habit I was trying to develop. However, this one had yet to come together very well. Months later, I saw that the demands of a full time job, competing priorities that all seemed to demand level one priority status and family commitments all came to a head on a daily basis. Without doubt, this conflict regularly pushed the daily post to the bottom of the pile. So I ummed and ahhed and decided that blogging daily was not necessary and that three times a week would suffice.
Yet, even after this drop in demand and expectation, I still failed to achieve much success with the blog. Looking at this conundrum, I began to wonder how I was able to achieve success with one habit and not the other.
Mulling over this over the last couple of months, I’ve now come to five conclusions as to why this is so:
1. Building a habit is really something that needs to be done daily
This is the most important finding to me. When you do something daily, you’re practising daily and we all know that practice makes perfect. Practising once a week or once a month is still practice but it means that you start, almost at ground zero, every time you practise.
This can be hard on the psyche as you see yourself not making substantial ground with each successive turn. You want to know, you want to feel that every effort you put in, at the very earliest stages, is making real impact and you don’t feel this when the practice is irregular. The pain is palpable, the effort very real; consequently, the lack of quick wins or tangible results makes it very easy to quit.
2. Building a habit requires flow and momentum building
Working on your habit daily allows you to see results quicker and the pain of having to work on this seems to go away much more quickly than if you were to do it every other day/week. I call this being ‘in the flow’. Everything takes time to build on, to develop and to gain a kind of momentum that seems to support your effort. Daily practice brings all this to fruition more clearly and quickly.
3. Building a habit takes time – not in years but in effort
Sometimes, it seems like people can be developing habits for years. How often have you heard someone say that they are on a diet, yet it is something you’ve heard them say before this? Perhaps it has even happened to you. The truth is that when you work on something, you’d like to consider the length of time taken as a yardstick but this is not always a good barometer of success.
Success is best quantified in terms of effort but measured in terms of result.Therefore, if you put in a lot of effort within a short period of time, it is very possible that you will have more success than someone who puts in mediocre effort over a period of years. While this is a bit of a generalisation, the truth is that habit or anything else you work on is about concentration, flow, momentum building and presence of mind. We can all work on things in a semi-automatic manner, much like how we drive from Point A to Point B. But it is when we work on things with all our senses focused on the one endeavour that we achieve much traction. Consider this : the person who, with no distractions in on the elliptical machine and pushing herself solidly from level to level as the minutes pass. And then consider the person who is on a similar machine doing much the same kind of activity, yet preoccupied with her phone and also catching up on reading. Who is likely to achieve results quicker?
4. Building a habit must be in your mind front and centre
The challenge with trying to build a habit that you work on every now and again is that you lose focus over time. If you take the typical executive today, who is time poor, who has to make decisions constantly about what to focus on, who is bombarded via technology and all other means, with things demanding his attention, you will find that it takes the most diligent, well-organised and goal-oriented individual to succeed in the endeavours he chooses. Building a habit, therefore, is a goal like any other goal. Success is contingent on this aim being very much present in all you do and think about.
5. Building a habit needs to start with effort and conscious thought but end with automation
This is your ideal scenario and ultimately, this is also the end result. You start with effort, pain and consciousness in your approach but when you have succeeded, there is a flow, there is anticipation and joy. There is a process to the whole activity that over time removes your preoccupation with the activity – consequently, it has become part of you.