“We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act, but a habit.” - Aristotle
I’ve been obsessed with thinking about, adjusting and building upon my habits for a long time now, and working on good habits is probably one of the things that’s helped me the most to make progress with my startup. In addition, it seems like habits are now becoming popular again. This is a great thing, and books like The Power of Habit are helping lots of people.
I’ve discovered that perhaps one of the things which is rarely discussed with habits is failing with them. How do you keep going with building habits when you fail one day, or you have some kind of momentary setback? I thought it might be useful for me to share my thoughts on habits, and particularly the aspect of failing with habits.
Building an awesome habit
There are the steps I’ve found which work best for creating an amazing habit:
- Start so small you “can’t fail” (more on the reality of that later)
- Work on the small habit for as long as it becomes a ritual (something you’re pulled towards rather than which requires willpower)
- Make a very small addition to the habit, ideally anchored to an existing ritual
How I built my most rewarding habit
The habit I’m happiest with is my morning routine. It gives me a fantastic start to the day and lots of energy. To build it, I took the approach above of starting small and building on top.
I started my habit two years ago when I was based in Birmingham in the UK. The first thing I started with, was to go to the gym 2-3 times per week. That’s all my routine was for a long time. Once I had that habit ingrained, I expanded on it so that I would go swimming the other two days of the week, essentially meaning that I went to the gym every day at the same time. I’d go around 7:30, which meant I awoke at around 7am.
Next, I gradually woke up earlier, first waking up at 6:45 for several weeks, and then 6:30. At the same time, I put in place my evening ritual of going for a walk, which helped me wind down and get to sleep early enough to then awake early. Eventually, I achieved the ability to wake up at 6am and do 1 hour of productive work before the gym. This precious early morning time for work when I was the freshest was one of the things that helped me get Buffer off the ground in the early days.
The next thing I made a real habit was to have breakfast after I returned from the gym. I then worked on making this full routine a habit for a number of months, and I had times when I moved to a different country and had to work hard to get back to the routine after the initial disruption of settling in. It was whilst in Hong Kong that I achieved being very disciplined with this routine and wrote about it.
My morning routine
Today, I’ve built on top of this habit even further. Here’s what my morning routine looks like now:
- I awake at 5:05am.
- At 5:10, I meditate for 6 minutes.
- I spend until 5:30 having a first breakfast: a bagel and a protein shake.
- I do 90 minutes of productive work on a most important task from 5:30 until 7am.
- At 7am, I go to the gym. I do a weights session every morning (different muscle group each day).
- I arrive home from the gym at 8:30am and have a second breakfast: chicken, 2 eggs and cottage cheese.
- At 9am we have the Buffer team standup video Skype call.
It may seem extremely regimented, and I guess perhaps it is. However, the important thing is the approach. You can start with one simple thing and then work on it over time. I’m now working to build around this current habit even more.
Failing whilst building your awesome habit
One of the most popular and simultaneously most controversial articles I’ve ever written is probably The Exercise Habit. It’s one which has been mentioned to me many times by people I’ve met to help with their startup challenges. I’ve been humbled to find out that a number of people have been inspired by the article to start a habit of daily exercise.
Whilst in Tel Aviv, I met Eytan Levit, a great startup founder who has since become a good friend. He told me he had read my article and was immediately driven to start a habit of daily exercise. I sat down and had coffee with him and he told me about his experience, it was fascinating. He told me that he did daily exercise for 4 days in a row, and he felt fantastic. He said he felt like he had more energy than ever before, and was ready to conquer the world. Then, on the 5th day Eytan struggled to get to the gym for whatever reason, and essentially the chain was broken. The most revelatory thing he said to me was that the reason he didn’t start the habit again was not that he didn’t enjoy the exercise or benefit greatly from doing it. The reason he failed to create the exercise habit was the feeling of disappointment of not getting to the gym on that 5th day.
Get ready and expect to break your habit
“I deal with procrastination by scheduling for it. I allow it. I expect it.” - Tim Ferriss
What I’ve realised, is that one of the key parts of building habits might be to know that you will not flawlessly create your habits. You are going to break your habit at some point, you are going to fail that next day or next gym session sooner or later. The important thing is to avoid a feeling of guilt and disappointment, because that is what will probably stop you from getting up the next day and continuing with the routine.
In a similar way to how Tim Ferriss deals with procrastination, I believe we should not try so hard to avoid breaking our habits. We should instead be calm and expect to break them sometime, let it happen, then regroup and get ready to continue with the habit. Perhaps we took too much on, and we cut back a little or try to add one less thing to our habit. Or maybe we just had a bad day. That’s fine, and a single failure shouldn’t stop our long-term success with building amazing habits.
Is there a habit you were building and are not anymore? Why is that? Which habit are you happiest with? I’d love to hear your experiences on creating habits.
Photo credit: darinaniz
I was recently talking with Eytan Levit, a really interesting founder who’s had a lot of amazing experiences. We were chatting about some of his current challenges, and amongst some things to do with the startup, blogging also came up as something Eytan wanted to find regularity in. I’m happy that our chat triggered him to start writing again.
I’ve also since spoken to Andy, Alyssa and Sunil, who are getting into regular blogging and seem to be going through some of the experiences I had at the start of my blogging journey. I thought sharing some of my realisations about what held me back might help people create a habit quicker than I did.
I’ve now written over 50 articles on this blog over the last two years, and I’ve recently successfully written an article every week for the last 5 months. Luckily people have noticed this, and seem to enjoy the articles, and as a result I get a few people asking me how I’ve kept up blogging as a habit. This triggered me to think about the key things that helped me:
1. Research or strong points are not necessary
I used to often believe that I needed some very solid research to back up any thought I penned down in an article. I also frequently found myself thinking that my ideas or experience were not interesting or valuable enough for others.
I’ve since realised that by simply writing from a personal experience perspective, sharing lots of details about any topic I’ve recently touched on in my startup, personal projects or thoughts about life, I usually creating content that was interesting for people to read.
2. Delaying an article with the belief spending longer will make it better usually just means it won’t get written
I used to create a draft in Tumblr every time I had an idea for a blog post. Then I’d let it sit there for a while, because I believed the idea wasn’t fully formed yet, or I didn’t have enough points to share about the topic. I believed by delaying, the perfect post would eventually come to mind.
What I’ve realised is that there is no better time to write the article than when the thought first enters your mind. I should only write it at another time if I simply can’t open my laptop and write it all the way through right at that moment. The content is freshest when it first appears in my mind, and in that state I write the best posts.
I’ve gotten much better at this over time, but I have 10s of drafts lying in Tumblr from the early days when this caught me out time and time again. If you delay, the more likely outcome is that it just won’t get written.
3. We should fear not publishing articles, rather than fearing the bad outcomes of putting something out there
Over time, the concept of “shipping” started to really fascinate me. I forced myself to, despite it being uncomfortable, “ship” everything I did earlier and earlier. Whether a product, a blog post, a speaking opportunity, I’d quit delaying and just put it out there or say “yes” to speaking.
One of my biggest learnings in the last year is that there is immense power in doing a huge volume of work. If I write a blog post every week, I learn a massive amount about what works, and it gives me much more inspiration for more articles. Also, if I write each week, I’m gradually reaching more people, growing my connections on Twitter and Facebook, and putting myself in a better position overall. I know now, that if I don’t publish one week, I’m missing out on these benefits. Therefore, I actually fear not shipping.
4. When I have a strong connection between writing and my higher level goals and purpose, it’s easy to write
One of my aspirations for some time which has driven many of my actions around writing and helping startup founders, is that I eventually want to be a fantastic advisor and angel investor for other startups. I want to be the kind of advisor who has been through many different experiences, and has a lot of thoughts about startup challenges and solutions right in my mind.
This higher level purpose is what often helps me go through the tougher times, since I need that experience first-hand in order to help others. It’s also what helps me continually write, because I know that if I write a blog post about a topic, it is always very clear in my mind from then onwards. If someone asks advice on something I’ve written about, it’s very easy to help them and add a lot of value.
5. Choosing a schedule for writing is a great hack to ensure regularity
Finding a pattern and rhythm for writing is really helpful of course. I’ve found that once I get #3 and #4 very clear in my head, that I fear that I’ll fail to put something out there, and that I attach my writing to a higher level purpose, then it is much easier to establish a regular writing habit. In this way, I’ve been able to write consistently once a week for the last 5 months.
In the early days of my blog, I set myself a rule that I would always write on a Sunday, and always publish by noon. This worked very well, and it also meant that people began to notice my pattern and look forward to the content. I follow a similar pattern now - I always write on the second day of my weekend (whilst here in Tel Aviv that’s been Saturday, normally it is Sunday).
Are there any cool realisations you’ve had whilst working towards a regular blogging or writing schedule? I’d really love to hear what worked for you.
Photo credit: Kartikay Sahay
“The man who reads nothing at all is better educated than the man who reads nothing but newspapers.” - Thomas Jefferson
Around 2 years ago I stopped reading and watching mainstream news. I don’t read a single newspaper, offline or online, and I don’t watch any TV at all. I recently mentioned this on Twitter and Facebook and it created a lot of discussion, so I wanted to expand on my thoughts and experiences.
When I first started ignoring news, I felt that I was simply making an excuse, that if I had more time I should read the news. Today, however, it is a very deliberate choice and I feel consistently happier every single day due to ignoring the mainstream news. It just so happens that the last 2 years have also been the most enjoyable and productive of my entire life, and have contained some of my greatest achievements. Here are a few reasons I think we should stop consuming mainstream news:
News is negative
“The news media are, for the most part, the bringers of bad news… and it’s not entirely the media’s fault, bad news gets higher ratings and sells more papers than good news.” - Peter McWilliams
The most interesting fact I learned in the last few years about mainstream media is that is that almost all news reported is negative. Studies have shown that the ratio of bad news to good news is around 17:1. That means that 95% is negative. This is a massive number, and I’m sure if you stop to think for a moment about the most recent news you watched, it has also been overwhelmingly negative. In my experience, 95% is absolutely the correct ratio in the news. However, 95% is a very bad reflection of the real ratio of good to bad in the world. Many great things happen, they just don’t sell newspapers.
Mainstream news report about wars, natural disasters, murders and other kinds of suffering. It seems the only natural conclusion of watching or reading mainstream news is that the world is a terrible place, and that it is getting worse every day. However, the reality of course is the complete opposite: we live in an amazing time and the human race is improving at a faster pace than ever before.
The effect of negative news
“When you turn on the television, for instance, you run the risk ingesting harmful things, such as violence, despair, or fear.” - Thich Nhat Hanh
Another very interesting thing I’ve learned in the last few years is the incredible impact that being around the right people can have on your trajectory to achieving what you want. This comes down essentially to your environment, and whilst it can mean some hard decisions to change our environment, we actually have a lot of control over it.
These two aspects - that we are subconsciously affected by our environment, no matter how much willpower we believe ourselves to have, and that we have much more control over our environment than we realise have been a key factor of some of the success I’ve had in the last few years.
In a TED talk titled “Information is food”, JP Rangaswami compared eating McDonald’s for 31 days, as in Supersize Me, to watching Fox News for 31 days. In essence, mainstream news is the fast food of information. There are much healthier types of information we can and should consume.
The opportunity cost of watching news
The other key thing that I think it can be easy to overlook, is what you could be doing in the time you are spending watching the news.
I remember as a kid, my parents always used to watch the 6 o’clock news. It became so ingrained, it was what would always happen at exactly 6pm, and if we didn’t watch it, we would surely miss out on something vital that could affect our lives.
As a teenager, over time I managed to gradually escape that more and more often. At first, I simply turned to something I enjoyed. I played games online in the evenings instead of sitting with my family and watching the news. The most interesting thing, however, is that my passion for gaming turned into a powerful hobby of learning to code, and I accredit this for a lot of my startup success.
Not only is watching news going to put an out of proportion amount of negative thoughts in your mind, which will affect what you can achieve, it is also valuable time where there are many amazing and meaningful things you could be doing:
Try a month off mainstream news
Abstaining from mainstream news has been one of the single best decisions I’ve made in the last two years for both my productivity and my happiness. If you’re still in a habit of watching or reading news, I strongly recommend you take Thomas Jefferson’s advice and try a month off news:
“I do not take a single newspaper, nor read one a month, and I feel myself infinitely the happier for it.”
Do you read or watch mainstream news? Have you thought about stopping consuming it? Have you also given it up and felt better? I’d love to hear from you.
Photo credit: Jon S
This morning, my alarm sounded at precisely 5:50am. Within a few minutes, I was up and had my running shoes, shorts and a t-shirt on. Minutes later at 6am, I opened my MacBook Air, switched to the desktop with TextMate open and got coding. I worked for just under one hour on some important new functionality for Buffer. At exactly 6:59am, I pushed the few commits I’d made to our Git repository. I then took my octopus card and Fitness First card out of my wallet and put them in my pocket. I put my wallet in the gym bag I’d packed the night before, and headed out of my apartment door. I got the lift down from my eighth floor to the ground floor, cheerily said good morning to the concierge and headed out of my apartment building.
Once outside, I very specifically walked across the street to the 7-11. I entered the shop, said hello to the lady and went to the back where the fridges are. I knew exactly what I would buy. I grabbed a can of red bull and a small bottle of Volvic water. I went back to the counter I’d walked past, put both on the surface and waited for the lady to key in the items. I had my octopus card ready on the scanner to make the payment, and as soon as I heard the beep to confirm the payment, I cracked open the red bull, and walked away with the red bull in my right hand and the Volvic in my left.
I set off on the 3 minute journey to my gym, and sipped the red bull on the way, a little caffeine to enhance my performance during my weights session. As always, I finished the red bull exactly as I approached the Hopewell Centre where the gym is located, and tossed the empty can in the bin as I walked past.
I headed to the escalator, and when I reached the top I walked over to the lift which takes you to the 16th floor where Fitness First is. As always, when I got into the lift I opened up my gym tracking app on my iPhone and checked what my first exercise for the day would be, and how much weight and reps I did last time. As I got to the top, I knew exactly my first exercise and how much I’d aim for this time. I walked out of the lift and headed to the counter to exchange my Fitness First card for a locker key and towels. Once I got to the changing rooms, I put my bag in locker number 115 along with the octopus card and locked it. With the Volvic in hand, I was ready to start and headed straight to the bench for my first exercise: 12 reps of dumbbell bench press, with 30kg dumbbells.
After I’d finished in the gym, I went straight home and had my usual breakfast of 4 Weetabix. As soon as I’d finished, I opened my MacBook Air, turned on the Pomodoro app and set the timer ticking for 30 minutes. I spent 30 minutes replying to emails from my “to-reply” label in Gmail, and then stopped when the timer went off. I quickly packed my bag and headed to Caffe Habitu, ready for a productive rest of the day.
The power of habits
Almost all of this pattern is now completely habitual for me, Monday to Friday each week. I alternate the gym which I do Monday, Wednesday and Friday with running or swimming on Tuesdays and Thursdays. The rest, however, stays the same. It requires very little mental energy for me to choose what to do, and it requires almost no willpower for me to force myself to accomplish the routine.
By 9:30am, I’ve done an hour of coding on the most important task I have right now on Buffer, I’ve been to the gym and had a great session, and I’ve done 30 minutes of emails. It’s only 9:30am and I’ve already succeeded, and I feel fantastic. The rest of the day is a breeze. I continue to code, and I slot in a 30 minute Pomodoro to fill my Buffer, a 30 minute Pomodoro to read a startup book (right now it’s Delivering Happiness) and one other 30 minute Pomodoro for emails later in the afternoon. I usually also meet with a startup founder here in Hong Kong during lunch and help them with their current biggest challenge. If I start the day like this, I almost always have a very productive day, and in our daily standup team Skype call I have plenty of good progress to share.
Exercise as a keystone habit
The interesting part is, this routine has taken me quite some time to build up. Looking back, it all started with just the exercise. I managed to create exercise as a daily habit around one and a half years ago when I was based in Birmingham in the UK. Over time, it became such a strong habit that there is no way I would skip it. If the rest of my routine falls apart, I will always achieve the exercising.
Right now I’m reading The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business by Charles Duhigg and everything suddenly became very clear. Exercise is what Duhigg calls a “keystone habit”:
“Typically, people who exercise, start eating better and becoming more productive at work. They smoke less and show more patience with colleagues and family. They use their credit cards less frequently and say they feel less stressed. Exercise is a keystone habit that triggers widespread change.”
Have you considered starting the exercise habit? Do you exercise regularly? I’d love to hear from you in the comments!
Photo credit: Tomomi Sasaki