“…we are we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act but a habit.” -Will Durant
The quote above, often mis-attributed to Aristotle, is used so much I was a little hesitant to use it here. It’s so true though, and sums up he point I intend to make so well that I couldn’t help it.
It’s not that you can’t reach success or excellence without using habits to drive your progress – but more that using habits to drive your success is the closest you can get to a guarantee that you’ll get there. Habits, like the Colorado river cutting away at the Grand Canyon, are an extremely potent force when leveraged over a long enough period of time. So what makes habit development so important?
The Cumulative Power of Habits
The primary power of habits lies in their cumulative nature, in what I tend to call skill accretion or sometimes goal accretion.
Skill accretion is the gradual build up of skill over time, little by little. It’s the most consistently successful way to build new skills in my experience, or to increase proficiency in skills you already have, because its gradual compounding nature means you don’t have to suffer through all the ups and downs and struggles of trying to rapidly acquire a skill. As a method its reliability stems from its sustainability.
As a self-defense instructor I have seen people on both ends of the spectrum in terms of approach to skill building. I’ve had students who went all out with five and six hour training sessions day after day who had dreams of being the next big UFC fighter, and I’ve had students who committed themselves to thirty minutes a day plus regular classes, or even just ten minutes of review practice each morning.
After a year – almost without exception – the people who committed to the small, daily, sustainable levels of training surpassed the skill levels of the people who went all out at the beginning. Generally, because the people that go all out just don’t last that long.
That’s not to say some don’t make it, but it’s pretty rare to find someone who is able to sustain that level of training effort over the long haul unless they are extremely committed, motivated, and disciplined. I’ve only had a few students that were able to pull it off.
That sustainable cumulative nature means that building easy habitual actions that move you a little further toward your goal, whether that’s completion of something like a project or building of a particular skill, will net you a far greater amount of progress in the long run than if you try to make a hard all out push.
Building those habits allows you to make those small incremental improvements an automatic, unthinking process.
Habits and Chunking
The use of habits as a tool also strongly facilitates the breaking down of large, difficult tasks into manageable bite-sized pieces or chunks – something I call chunking.
This is important because a lot of tasks can feel relatively insurmountable if you’re approaching them as one complete unit.
An easy example is writing a novel. Having a basic goal of reaching the 80,000 word mark, a general average for most novels, seems daunting when you’re approaching it all at once. When you’re looking at that 80,000 word goal all at once it can seem like you’ll never get there – even typing for hours it can feel like you didn’t even make a dent. For most people the thought of writing that much, of writing a complete novel, just feels like something they would never have time for.
When you break it down though, 80,000 words is only about 1,334 words or so per day spread over two months. If you’re in no real hurry you could write 220 words everyday and have that 80,000 word book finished in a year. For scale, I’ve written about 650 words so far in this article in the span of about thirty minutes.
In comparison to the whole 80,000 word novel, that bite-sized chunk of about 1,400 words looks effortless.
Using the process of habit building you can make it even more so.
Habituating the action of writing 300 words every morning when you sit down with your coffee would be simple. It wouldn’t take any time out of your day – you can likely write far in excess of 300 words in the time it takes you to finish a cup of coffee – and when you make it a habit it becomes and unconscious action. Much like brushing your teeth in the morning, it becomes something you no longer have to think hard about or put effort in to.
So in a year’s time, with zero additional time investment and little more effort than is required to remember to brush your teeth in the morning, you could have a complete novel finished in a year’s time.
These things are what makes habit building such a powerful tool.
You can habituate almost anything. You can use habits to complete things like books, work projects, gradually cleaning out your bursting inbox or messy garage. You can use habits to learn things or improve at things, learning a second language, playing an instrument, improving your coding skills.
The key is recognizing how useful habit creation can be, and then bringing that usefulness to bear in achieving your goals.
Are there any other ways habit building has helped you in reaching your goals, building a skill, or completing a daunting project? Leave a comment and share!
Photo Credit: Carmen Jost