Waiting for inspiration or motivation means you’re likely to never get started.
Do this instead: use daily habits and systems to move you forward.
Daily habits are the engine that move us toward our goals. As James Clear says, focus on systems not goals.
How to get from here to there
There is actually quite a bit of complexity involved in driving yourself from Here to There. You cannot simply get in your car that’s parked right here and and turn your steering wheel and point it over There in order to arrive. You have to start the car and drive it.
Under the hood of that car is an entire system– the engine– that propels the car forward. That forward movement is critical to reaching your goal.
When you’ve identified a goal or an outcome you want to work toward, what you need to get there is a habit– a system– that will propel you in that direction.
If your goal is to run a 5k, then your system should be to go for a 20-minute jog every day and you might use a Couch to 5K app if you want to get fancy.
If your goal is to publish a book, then your system should be to write every day.
If your goal is to retire early, then your system should be to set aside and invest a portion of your income every single month.
As Benjamin Franklin once said, “little strokes fell great oaks.”
Alas, most of us just don’t like doing a little bit on a regular basis. We want instant breakthrough. Today. I know I sure do.
For example, I want to have $1,000,000 cash in the bank. But instead of investing my money, consistently over time, I’d rather try to come up with a brilliant idea and make $1,000,000 overnight.
But the reality is that the former is far, far more likely to happen than the latter. Moreover, I actually have control over my monthly investment habits, whereas I have very little control over some mystery idea making me a millionaire overnight.
There is value in small things done consistently over time. Which means that our most basic actions and seemingly inconsequential routines are actually the key players moving our life in whatever direction it is going.
Again, to quote my favorite quotable, Ben Franklin, “Human felicity is produced not as much by great pieces of good fortune that seldom happen as by little advantages that occur every day.”
What are these little advantages that occur every day? They are the daily habits and lifestyle choices we make.
How your daily habits keep you on track
You don’t have all the mental willpower to make great decisions all day every day. In fact, as the day goes along, you slowly lose your willpower.
I think this is a huge reason why the average American spends five hours watching television every day. He or she comes home from the day feeling tired and doesn’t want to think about what to do. So they simply turn on the television, and over time, the act of watching TV every night after work becomes a habit.
(But hey, if you want to be spending your evenings with Netflix, go for it. I’m not here to judge.) But… If you were to choose an ideal way to spend your week, which one of these options would you pick?
- Watch 35 hours of television.
- Write 7,000 words toward your next book.
- Encourage seven of your closest friends and family members.
- Read seven chapters of a book.
- Walk seven miles.
Now, I know some of you will say that watching 35 hours of TV per week is your preferred way to spend your time. But I bet most of you would choose to write, read, connect with others, or stay healthy.
What if I told you that you could trade the 35 hours of television for the other four tasks combined?
35 hours = equals 5 hours per day for 7 days… And with those same five hours each day, you’d have enough time to spend doing:
- One whole hour writing.
- One whole hour encouraging someone over email or making a phone call.
- One whole hour to read a chapter from a book.
- One whole hour to walk a mile around your neighborhood.
- And still have one whole hour to spare to watch an episode of your favorite show.
You can do a lot in five hours. Especially if you break it up into small routines. It may sound ridiculous, but it’s not. It just requires building better daily habits.
If you choose something long enough, eventually it will choose you back.
As F.M. Alexander said, “People do not decide their futures, they decide their habits and their habits decide their futures.”
In order to set daily habits you need the following:
- Know your direction. Having a goal is critical for planning. It gives you a direction to head.
- Start small. This is two-fold. For one, we often set our sights on the moon. And second, we often grade ourselves on a simple pass/fail metric. The result is that we set a bar so high we couldn’t possibly reach it, and then we don’t and we consider ourselves failures. Instead, set your goals to be something easily attainable and then repeat, repeat, repeat.
- Have fun. The more mastery and familiarity you have over your skill, the more joy you’ll find in it. But the opposite is also important– you need that spark of delight and joy to help keep you going when times are challenging.
- Stay accountable. Get your friends and family involved somehow. Tell your audience about what you’re doing. Set a consistent time and place so that there is no guesswork.
- Give yourself 60 days. Most of us have heard it takes 21 days to build a habit, but that’s the best-case. On average, most of us need 60 days to form a new habit. Give yourself some time.
From the outside, doing a small and simple routine, day in and day out, may sound boring. And, as my friend, Mo Bunnell recently said, maybe it’s true. Maybe showing up every day, working on the same things is boring. Maybe excellence is boring.
Or maybe it just appears boring from the outside.
From the outside, watching people pursue excellence might appear boring. But from the inside, it’s different. Excellence is thrilling.
Pitfalls to avoid when setting daily habits
Creating habits takes a lot of work, and it doesn't come easy. Here are a couple tips to help you be as successful as possible.
Don’t wait for clarity.
Instead, act now! It’s action that will bring clarity and motivation, not the other way around.
Don’t quit during the first five minutes.
The beginning of any new task is always the hardest: getting out of bed to go on a jog; opening up a blank document to write 500 words; starting a new Photoshop file to design a client’s home page.
If you know that the first steps are the hardest, what can you do to help optimize for the starting line?
Don’t ignore your small, daily wins.
Instead, celebrate them. Did you show up to write? Did you step outside for your jog? Awesome. Celebrate that progress by telling a friend, making note of it in your journal, or buying yourself a drink.
Don’t quit after the False First Step.
Buying a new pair of running shoes is not the same as implementing a new workout routine. Reading a finance book is not the same as investing your money. Don’t mistake that first step as the completion of your goal.
How have I done this in my own life?
Here are three habits I employ that keep me on pace for some of the goals I have for my work, my personal life, and my finances:
- My writing note: I write every day. And beforehand, I plan my topics. This helps me get going every morning and maintain my writing habit.
- Date night: Every week for the past 13 years, my wife and I have had a regular date night. By having it scheduled week after week, we’ve created a regular time to talk and spend time together as husband and wife. Over the past 13 years (plus 3 kids), date night has helped us continue to see one another and connect more than just surviving together in the same house.
- Charitable giving: Something I don’t talk about much publicly is my commitment to give 15% of gross revenue to charities and non-profit work. Every month we take a cut right off the top of my company’s gross income and set it aside for charitable donations. By making this a financial habit it has helped us maintain our goal for charitable giving as the business has grown.
The not-so-obvious benefit of creating habits
By focusing on your daily habits and your systems, rather than on the goal itself, you also have a much higher chance of enjoying life today.
When we focus solely on the goal, we are deferring our happiness and deferring our success. We think we will be happy once we finally attain a certain goal or outcome. But what happens once you attain your goal? Or what if you don’t attain the goal at all?
In school, we focus on getting straight A’s. But as soon as you do, then the goal changes to getting into a great college. Then, as soon as you do that, the goal changes to getting a great job. The goal post keeps moving.
But if we focus on the system, then we take more pride and joy in the process. And thus, find more happiness today. The systems move us toward the goals and outcomes we desire. But, in the end, the goals do not matter nearly as much as the process and the journey.
Need help setting your daily habits to reach bigger goals?
To help you boil your goals down into small, daily habits, I put together this one-page worksheet for you.
Print a few of them out and give it a try for the next week or two and see if it helps.