How to Break a Bad Habit and Replace It With a Good One
by James Clear
Read this on JamesClear.com
Bad habits interrupt your life and prevent you from accomplishing your goals. They jeopardize your health — both mentally and physically. And they waste your time and energy.
So why do we still do them? And most importantly, is there anything you can do about it?
I’ve previously written about the science of how habits start, so now let’s focus on the practice of making changes in the real world. How can you delete your bad behaviors and stick to good ones instead?
I certainly don’t have all of the answers, but keep reading and I’ll share what I’ve learned about how to break a bad habit.
What causes bad habits?
Most of your bad habits are caused by two things…
Stress and boredom.
Most of the time, bad habits are simply a way of dealing with stress and boredom. Everything from biting your nails to overspending on a shopping spree to drinking every weekend to wasting time on the internet can be a simple response to stress and boredom. 
But it doesn’t have to be that way. You can teach yourself new and healthy ways to deal with stress and boredom, which you can then substitute in place of your bad habits.
Of course, sometimes the stress or boredom that is on the surface is actually caused by deeper issues. These issues can be tough to think about, but if you’re serious about making changes then you have to be honest with yourself.
Are there certain beliefs or reasons that are behind the bad habit? Is there something deeper — a fear, an event, or a limiting belief — that is causing you to hold on to something that is bad for you?
Recognizing the causes of your bad habits is crucial to overcoming them.
You don’t eliminate a bad habit, you replace it.
All of the habits that you have right now — good or bad — are in your life for a reason. In some way, these behaviors provide a benefit to you, even if they are bad for you in other ways.
Sometimes the benefit is biological like it is with smoking or drugs. Sometimes it’s emotional like it is when you stay in a relationship that is bad for you. And in many cases, your bad habit is a simple way to cope with stress. For example, biting your nails, pulling your hair, tapping your foot, or clenching your jaw.
These “benefits” or reasons extend to smaller bad habits as well.
For example, opening your email inbox as soon as you turn on your computer might make you feel connected. At the same time looking at all of those emails destroys your productivity, divides your attention, and overwhelms you with stress. But, it prevents you from feeling like you’re “missing out” … and so you do it again.
Because bad habits provide some type of benefit in your life, it’s very difficult to simply eliminate them. (This is why simplistic advice like “just stop doing it” rarely works.)
Instead, you need to replace a bad habit with a new habit that provides a similar benefit.
For example, if you smoke when you get stressed, then it’s a bad plan to “just stop smoking” when that happens. Instead, you should come up with a different way to deal with stress and insert that new behavior instead of having a cigarette.
In other words, bad habits address certain needs in your life. And for that reason, it’s better to replace your bad habits with a healthier behavior that addresses that same need. If you expect yourself to simply cut out bad habits without replacing them, then you’ll have certain needs that will be unmet and it’s going to be hard to stick to a routine of “just don’t do it” for very long.
How to break a bad habit
Here are some additional ideas for breaking your bad habits and thinking about the process in a new way.
Choose a substitute for your bad habit. You need to have a plan ahead of time for how you will respond when you face the stress or boredom that prompts your bad habit. What are you going to do when you get the urge to smoke? (Example: breathing exercises instead.) What are you going to do when Facebook is calling to you to procrastinate? (Example: write one sentence for work.) Whatever it is and whatever you’re dealing with, you need to have a plan for what you will do instead of your bad habit.
Cut out as many triggers as possible. If you smoke when you drink, then don’t go to the bar. If you eat cookies when they are in the house, then throw them all away. If the first thing you do when you sit on the couch is pick up the TV remote, then hide the remote in a closet in a different room. Make it easier on yourself to break bad habits by avoiding the things that cause them.
Right now, your environment makes your bad habit easier and good habits harder. Change your environment and you can change the outcome.
Join forces with somebody. How often do you try to diet in private? Or maybe you “quit smoking” … but you kept it to yourself? (That way no one will see you fail, right?)
Instead, pair up with someone and quit together. The two of you can hold each other accountable and celebrate your victories together. Knowing that someone else expects you to be better is a powerful motivator.
Surround yourself with people who live the way you want to live.You don’t need to ditch your old friends, but don’t underestimate the power of finding some new ones.
Visualize yourself succeeding. See yourself throwing away the cigarettes or buying healthy food or waking up early. Whatever the bad habit is that you are looking to break, visualize yourself crushing it, smiling, and enjoying your success. See yourself building a new identity.
You don’t need to be someone else, you just need to return to the old you. So often we think that to break our bad habits, we need to become an entirely new person. The truth is that you already have it in you to be someone without your bad habits. In fact, it’s very unlikely that you had these bad habits all of your life. You don’t need to quit smoking, you just need to return to being a non–smoker. You don’t need to transform into a healthy person, you just need to return to being healthy. Even if it was years ago, you have already lived without this bad habit, which means you can most definitely do it again.
Use the word “but” to overcome negative self–talk. One thing about battling bad habits is that it’s easy to judge yourself for not acting better. Every time you slip up or make a mistake, it’s easy to tell yourself how much you suck. 
Whenever that happens, finish the sentence with “but”…
- “I’m fat and out of shape, but I could be in shape a few months from now.”
- “I’m stupid and nobody respects me, but I’m working to develop a valuable skill.”
- “I’m a failure, but everybody fails sometimes.”
Plan for failure. We all slip up every now and then.
As my main man Steve Kamb says, “When you screw up, skip a workout, eat bad foods, or sleep in, it doesn’t make you a bad person. It makes you human. Welcome to the club.”
So rather than beating yourself up over a mistake, plan for it. We all get off track, what separates top performers from everyone else is that they get back on track very quickly. For a handful of strategies that can help you bounce back when you make a mistake, read this article.
Where to go from here
If you’re looking for the first step to breaking your bad habits, I’d suggest starting with awareness.
It’s easy to get caught up in how you feel about your bad habits. You can make yourself feel guilty or spend your time dreaming about how you wish things were … but these thoughts take you away from what’s actually happening.
Instead, it’s awareness that will show you how to actually make change.
- When does your bad habit actually happen?
- How many times do you do it each day?
- Where are you?
- Who are you with?
- What triggers the behavior and causes it to start?
Simply tracking these issues will make you more aware of the behavior and give you dozens of ideas for stopping it.
Here’s a simple way to start: just track how many times per day your bad habit happens. Put a piece of paper in your pocket and a pen. Each time your bad habit happens, mark it down on your paper. At the end of the day, count up all of the tally marks and see what your total is.
In the beginning your goal isn’t to judge yourself or feel guilty about doing something unhealthy or unproductive. The only goal is to be aware of when it happens and how often it happens. Wrap your head around the problem by being aware of it. Then, you can start to implement the ideas in this article and break your bad habit.
Breaking bad habits takes time and effort, but mostly it takes perseverance. Most people who end up breaking their bad habits try and fail multiple times before they make it work. You might not have success right away, but that doesn’t mean you can’t have it at all.
This Is How to Stop Taking Yourself Too Seriously
Just follow rule number 6
“The mind is like a parachute. It doesn’t work if it isn’t open.” — Frank Zappa
If you follow just one rule in life, choose rule Number Six.
Two prime ministers were having a casual conversation. One was intrigued about this rule that seemed so simple. The other man has just recommended it on two occasions with an immediate positive outcome.
First, a subordinate came to see him. He was upset, banging his fist on the desk. Then, a hysterical woman who was gesticulating wildly. After their boss reminded them of rule number 6, they both left the room in a positive mood.
The other prime minister was intrigued, “What is rule number 6?”
“Rule number 6 is don’t take yourself so damn seriously.”
The first prime minister laughed. He wanted to learn more, “So, what are the other rules?”
“There are no other rules,” was the answer.
The secret of life requires following one single rule. If you want to succeed and be happy, don’t take yourself too seriously.
The Center of the Universe
“Don’t go around saying the world owes you a living. The world owes you nothing. It was here first.” — Mark Twain
When we take ourselves too seriously, we believe everything revolves around us. That’s why we fear being ridiculed — we don’t want to face we are not so special.
The fear of shame kills our drive — we censor our desires to avoid being laughed at.
The paradox of shame is that, by looking for approval, we turn others into our judges. The fear of rejection makes us desperate for pleasing others. We become prisoners of other people’s judgment.
The fear of ridicule is anticipation — we worry about something that mighthappen.
As Brené Brown explains in his book Daring Greatly, seeking approval disconnect us from our desires. Women are expected to be naturally perfect. Men live under the pressure of not being perceived as weak. The author captures the need for worthiness in the sequence “pleasing, performing, and perfecting.”
External expectations are a moving target, as I wrote in this column. By trying to please everyone, we end pleasing no one — ourselves included.
Our self-worth is tied to how our audience receives our performance. If they love it, we are worth it. If they don’t, we feel worthless. Living our lives as an endless performance is exhausting — we are always playing a part.
Perfectionism is the enemy of change. The bar is so high that we never rest to have fun. We want to do everything the right way — one single mistake could ruin everything we’ve built.
When we take ourselves seriously, we take others seriously too — that’s why their opinions hurt us. You let their judgment define your identity — you accept the labels people give you.
The solution lies in finding balance: take life seriously, but not yourself.
As Alan Rickman said: “I do take my work seriously and the way to do that is not to take yourself too seriously.”
Goodbye Measurement World
“The notion that leaders need to be in charge and to know all the answers is both dated and distracted.” — Peter Sheahan
I consider myself a serious person — I take life seriously.
However, my peculiar sense of humor has allowed me to cope through turbulent times. A long time ago, I learned to stop looking for other people’s approval. If something goes well, I enjoy it. If it doesn’t, I move on.
I’m not immune to other’s people influence, but I’ve learned to own my actions. I do what feels right and take full ownership — there’s no room for blaming others or myself.
I feel comfortable being uncomfortable — vulnerability is recognizing my perfect imperfections. I learned to take life seriously, but not myself.
In the Art of Possibility, Rosamund and Benjamin Zanders share 12 rules for bringing creativity into all human endeavors — rule Number Six is the best. The authors invite us to take a distance from our serious and heavy selves.
Our inner-self has been trained to ‘measure up’ in a competitive world — we look for external references to define our performance.
We live in a measurement world. Everything we do is measured against others. How much money we make. How beautiful our partners are. How happy we are. Our identity is relative to what other people have or do.
“The frames our mind create define and confine what we perceive to be possible. Every problem, every dilemma, every dead end we find ourselves in life, only appear unsolvable inside a particular frame or point of view.” — Rosamund and Benjamin Zanders
Change your outlook. Move from measurement to possibilities.
When others laughed at you, they measure you against their expectations. But if you focus on achieving what you wish, regardless of what people think, you will reach your full potential.
Take leaders, for example. Those who feel superior try to suppress other to look even better. Those who feel inferior try to make others suffer too. When you stop measuring yourself against other’s expectations, you are not only free, but you don’t feel the need to change others.
We have two selves, according to the Zanders, our Calculating-Self and our Central-Self.
The Calculating-Self it’s us in survival mode — it sees everything as an attack on us. The Central-Self represents the generative, prolific, and creative nature of ourselves and the world. Instead of putting us at the center of everything, it appraises reality without an agenda.
The Central-Self is a softer, brighter, and lighter version of ourselves — it’s ego-less.
Rule Number 6 is a reminder to lighten up and not take ourselves so seriously! It releases us from selfish and self-limiting views — instead of trying to be appreciated we stop giving a damn.
The Power of Humor
“You can’t deny laughter. When it comes, it plops down in your favorite chair and stays as long as it wants.” — Stephen King
Do you consider yourself a serious person? Do you find it hard to let go?
There are two types of people. Those who find it easy to laugh at themselves. And those who take themselves too seriously. Laughing at yourself is more than a positive mindset — it improves our health also.
Research links laughing at oneself with having an upbeat personality and good mood. It’s at the foundation of having a sense of humor. However, laughing at oneself is not easy — it represents the most difficult (humor) level.
Those who laugh at themselves regularly are less prone to chronic stress too.
Adaptive humor — cheering people up or seeing the humor in adverse events, is connected to well-being and psychological health. It increases resilience, diminishes the risks of heart attacks, and helps us manage pain better.
Humor gives leaders an edge too. Employees mentioned “sense of humor” and “work ethic” twice as much as any other phrases to define what makes a good leader, according to a study by Bell Leadership Institute.
Taking ourselves with a grain of salt gives us perspective — we can learn from mistakes by observing from a distance.
Tips to Take Yourself Less Seriously
“Don’t push the river, it flows by itself.” — Chinese proverb
1. Confront the fear of being ridiculed:
End the vicious cycle — fear fuels more fear. Face it and get over it. As Seth Godin said, “Dance with fear. As you dance, you realize that fear is, in fact, a compass — it’s giving you a hint that you are onto something.” Use that fear as energy to leap forward.
2. Drop the ball on purpose:
I don’t mean metaphorically, just let something fall through the cracks. This will not only help you realize that one mistake won’t kill you — but it will also help you regain control. If someone complains, smile and tell them you did it on purpose. Erring on purpose prepares you for unexpected mistakes.
3. Change the tone, change the conversation:
The best way to overcome pressure from perfectionists is not taking them too seriously. Perfectionists tend to think in right-or-wrong terms — either you succeed or fail. Use humor to disarm their approach: show them life’s shades of grey.
4. What’s the worst thing that could happen?
This simple question can help you, and others, put things in perspective. I’m not telling you not to aim high, but to find balance. Write everything that comes to your mind. Are you worried about real things? Or are you taking small things too seriously? Reflect and separate worries from facts.
5. Become shame-resilient:
Learn to acknowledge the voice of shame when it’s calling your name. Face that emotion. Brené Brown suggests talking to your shame, “This is disappointing, maybe even devastating. But success and recognition and approval are not values that drive me. My value is courage. You can move on, shame.”
6. Add more humor to your life:
Surround yourself with funny people. Turn off the news and violent shows; watch a comedy instead. Use self-deprecation instead of nasty labels. Smile. Especially, when you feel nervous or upset. Find the humor in something serious. Getting used to laugh at yourself will make you immune to your audience’s laughter.
7. Let go of your reputation:
Your image is not you. It’s just what people perceive. Don’t let your self-worth depend on your audience’s applause. When your self-worth is not on the line, it’s easier to take more risks and be courageous. You stop thinking if you know how to dance or not. You just start swaying.
Life’s too short. Don’t take yourself so damn seriously. I know, it sounds easier said than done, but trying to impress others requires more energy. Learn to see the opportunity hidden within challenges.
Don’t take others too seriously either. Free yourself from the Measurement World. Be okay being vulnerable. Take life seriously, not yourself.
Life Is What Happens When You Are Not on Autopilot
Regain the reins of your life
Does life just happen to you?
A man is riding a horse that is galloping very quickly. He seems to be in a hurry — probably heading to an important place.
“Where are you going?” a man yells at him.
“I don’t know. Ask the horse,” the rider replies.
Sometimes, life feels like a horse we cannot control. We don’t know where we are heading or why. We are just running as this Zen parable captures. Most of us are living on autopilot — the horse holds the reins, not us.
We Are Sleep-Walking
“The inertia of the mind urges it to slide down the easy slope of imagination, rather than to climb the steep slope of introspection.” ― Marcel Proust
Who holds the reins of your life?
Adults make an average of 35,000 decisions a day. We’ve developed an unconscious decision-making system to manage routines. It prevents us from overloading our brains. However, modern life has hijacked our lives — the mechanism that should protect us is creating social disengagement.
When we live on autopilot, it feels like the horse is riding our lives, not us.
Our minds wander around most of the time. 96% of people admit making most decisions on autopilot, according to research — it has become an epidemic.
Autopilot is becoming our default operating mode — we are sleep-walking into our choices.
39% of respondents say they slip into autopilot while relaxing at home. And two-fifths say they’ve forgotten something while operating on that mode.
“People recognize that the choices they are making don’t add up to the life they want to live. We can all do better at living more purposefully. The opposite of autopilot is purposeful living,” explains Dr Mark Williamson.
Much of our lives are wasted by doing things mindlessly. Most people can’t remember what they watched on TV — research shows that binge-watching diminishes memory and perceived comprehension.
We are living on autopilot in the place where we need to pay the most attention: our home. People make decisions — such as what to eat, what to watch on TV, or what to wear — without putting any thinking, the study concludes.
As Professor Renata Salecl says, “We’re forgetting that, when we are at home, the important things are to interact with family and friends, without being constantly distracted.”
There’s another way to ride.
Autopilot Is Not Your Only Option
“The human spirit lives on creativity and dies in conformity and routine.” ― Vilayat Inayat Khan
Living on autopilot disengages us from both our present and future.
One exercise I love facilitating to help people reconnect with their life’s purpose is the future-self meditation.
Participants ‘travel’ to the future to visit themselves 1, 3, 5, and 10 years from now. The goal is to help people visualize their dreams and wishes. Each visit, in a different point in time, helps them visualize the progression but, most importantly, to understand how they overcame their fears and constraints.
To my surprise, most people find it hard to project their future — they are so disconnected from the present that they can’t dream.
Living on autopilot means leaning towards the most comfortable thinking mode. But we have two; we must learn to use both.
Though System 1 and System 2 have been around for quite some time, it was Nobel awardee Professor Daniel Kahneman’s book Thinking, Fast and Slow, that turned them mainstream.
System 1 is an automatic, fast, and unconscious way of thinking — it’s our autopilot. This system is autonomous and efficient, though deceiving too. It’s more prone to bias and to make the same mistakes.
System 2 is slow, conscious, and effortful — it requires attention and energy. It’s more reliable and can filter the System 1’s misjudgments.
Our brain is lazy, as I wrote here — that’s why it leans towards System 1. Self-awareness helps us train our mind and avoid living on autopilot. It’s not that one is better than the other — we must learn to use those in a balanced way.
System 1 is ideal for quick decisions, based on little information. When you are driving your car or doing the laundry, you don’t need to overthink. However, you wouldn’t use it to make more significant life choices like choosing a career, which home to buy or whom to marry.
System 2 is ideal for handling more complex mental activities, such as logical reasoning, managing interpersonal relationships, learning new things or building habits. It can help you turn off the autopilot.
Take the Reins of Your Life
“If you feel like you don’t fit into the world you inherited it is because you were born to help create a new one.” ― Ross Caligiuri
Your brain has an autopilot mode — it’s called the ‘default mode network.’ This function is perfect for mundane activities such as driving or shopping.
To study this brain network, scientist taught participants how to play a new card game. Brain scans showed how memory regions were activated while participants learned to play the game. Once they familiarized with it, the brain ‘switch-off’ and the autopilot region lit up. Participants started to play better, performing more accurately and quickly.
Your brain autopilot boosts your performance when it comes to repetitive tasks. However, your life is not a card game — to think through a situation, problem or dilemma requires paying attention. Being more mindful is the answer.
But, first, regains the reins of your life.
1. Notice how you ride
Become more aware of your behavior. Are you living on autopilot because you want to or because it just happens? Are you making choices or merely letting your autopilot choose what shows you watch or the food you eat? Write a journal or take notes to increase awareness and challenge your behavior.
Be patient. It takes time to regain the reins of your life.
2. Ride with a purpose
What’s your end destination in life? How do you want to be remembered? As the saying goes, “Choose something worth dying for, and live for it.” Your life’s purpose should guide and inspire your actions. Having a clear destination will help you avoid useless shortcuts.
Keeping your purpose present will bring more intention to your everyday activities.
3. Bring meaning to your routines:
There’s nothing wrong with letting the horse ride freely — the problem is when autopilot becomes your driving system of choice. Habits drive focus and efficiency. However, they must be connected to your life’s purpose and goals.
Don’t let your routines dictate how you live, bring mindfulness to everyday chores.
4. Stop and reflect:
When you squeeze back on the reins, the horse comes to a halt. A pause is more than slowing down — it’s creating space to start paying attention. You can reflect on your life. What do you like? Are you enjoying what you are doing? What’s going on? Are you focused or distracted? Why?
We are prisoners of our busy minds; pausing sets yourself free.
5. Go beyond your comfort zone:
When we live on autopilot, we stop challenging ourselves — you end up bored and repeating yourself. Discomfort is a doorway to personal discovery and growth. Learning happens when you stretch beyond your comfort zone. Test your limits. Try new things.
Build a habit of continually experiencing new things — you don’t need to skydive to feel alive.
6. Make better decisions:
For simple things, follow your gut (System 1). However, if your gut is not certain, think it through. Avoid cognitive biases — challenge the first solution that comes to mind. Remember, your lazy brain will jump into the most comfortable conclusion, not the best one. Lastly, for important decisions, always think them through.
7. Move from FEAR to DARE
Sometimes, choosing to drive on autopilot could be an excuse to not paying attention. When you don’t know what’s wrong, you don’t feel the need to make any changes. FEAR is the acronym for Fighting, Excuses, Avoidance, and Repetition — it’s how resistance manifest. The antidote to FEAR is DARE — Discovery, Autonomy, Reframing, and Experimentation. Here’s how.
Be authentic. Be brave. Dare to change.
Letting life happen to you is easy. But, if your autopilot is always on, you are just existing, not living.
Being on autopilot prevents mundane activities from overloading your brain. However, behaving with intentionality and mindfully lets you enjoy life, not just live it.
Regain the reins of your life — you decide when to drive on autopilot and when not. Not the horse.
Six science-backed techniques to help you make hard decisions
The typical adult makes 35,000 decisions each day.
If you do the math (and account for seven hours of sleep), that’s about 2,000 decisions every hour — or one choice every two seconds.
Most decisions are actually micro-choices, like clicking a link or taking a sip of coffee. But some choices feel momentous.
An internal tug-of-war indicates that something big is at stake. You sense that the choice could significantly affect your happiness, freedom, pride, or personal fulfillment.
If you’re running a business, there are even more decisions to make — and many are critical to the health of your company.
The good news? Science is continually discovering new and better ways to make tough decisions.
As Lea Heinrich writes in the New York Times, “over the past few decades, a growing multidisciplinary field of research — spanning areas as diverse as cognitive science, management theory and literary studies — have given us a set of tools that we can use to make better choices.”
Unfortunately, none of these tools can actually make the decision for you.
“They are prompts, hacks, nudges,” says Heinrich.
“They’re intended to help you see the current situation from new perspectives, to imagine new possibilities, to weigh your options with more sophistication.
There is no foolproof algorithm for life’s difficult choices. But the research shows that you can get better at making them.”
In the 12 years since I started JotForm, my team and I have faced a lot of tricky choices, and I’ve tried many different decision-making techniques.
Here are six methods that I rely on when I’m losing sleep over a challenging decision.
1. Make a “value-based” pros & cons list
Imagine that you’re considering a move. Will you relocate to another city? Pull out a piece of paper and write a classic pros and cons list for the move.
Now, here’s where science has added a helpful twist.
Assign every list entry a number from 0 to 1, based on your personal values. For example, if being closer to your family is a “pro” that’s extremely high on your list, you might score it at 0.9 or 0.95.
If you listed “near the mountains” as another pro, but you’re more of a culture hound than an alpine hiker, then it might only rate 0.2 or 0.3.
Do the same for the “con” side. Leaving a job you love could score 0.8, for example, if your career is an essential part of your life.
Add up each side, multiply by 100, and see whether the pro or con side wins out. You can also make a separate pro and con list for staying where you are. Compare the final values and see how you feel about the outcome.
Often, confronting a “logical” number (which was actually weighted with emotions) can illuminate subconscious feelings.
If you see the numbers but still feel pulled in the opposite direction, it’s worth doing some deeper exploration.
You can also use this technique for smaller, less personal decisions, like which project or feature to tackle next.
2. Explore future scenarios
Considering the best- and worst-case scenarios is a common way to make tough choices.
What’s the very best future you can imagine? The worst? And how would you feel if that disastrous scenario became reality?
To expand on this technique, psychologist Gary Klein has studied a twist he calls the “premortem.” In a classic Harvard Business Review story, Klein explains why a premortem is the hypothetical opposite of a postmortem.
“A postmortem in a medical setting allows health professionals and the family to learn what caused a patient’s death. Everyone benefits except, of course, the patient. A premortem in a business setting comes at the beginning of a project rather than the end, so that the project can be improved rather than autopsied.”
Imagine that your decision was terrible. The project you chose to tackle was a crash-and-burn disaster. Now, explore every possible reason for the failure.
Once you address this worst-case scenario, you can take steps to prevent it — and make a better decision in the first place.
In fact, research shows that premortems (which are also called prospective hindsight) can increase our ability to identify future outcome causes by 30%.
On the flip side, try to visualize that epic, best-case future scenario and gauge how you feel. If you’re not happy or excited, it’s worth considering why.
Amazon uses a variation of both these techniques. Company developers must draft a hypothetical press release and FAQ announcement before they even write any code.
By working backwards, the team tackles the most difficult decisions upfront and clarifies the product’s value proposition. As reporter Jillian D’Onfro explains, “if the team can’t come up with a compelling press release, the product probably isn’t worth making.”
3. Avoid binary choices
We often get stuck choosing between this or that. Should I go back to school or start a business? Should I move to San Francisco or stay in Houston?
It’s easy to see the world in black-and-white, but there’s typically a grey option in the middle — or several shades of grey.
Maybe you could spend summers in San Francisco (as long as you can embrace Karl the Fog) and winters in Houston. Or, you could live in Houston for another couple years and move to the Bay Area later.
Sometimes the right choice is not one of two opposites. It’s a more creative, nuanced, or flexible solution.
4. Consult with others
Sharing your dilemma with others can justify or reinforce a choice, but more importantly, it’s a valuable way to gather valuable information.
If you can’t decide whether to move, for example, don’t just survey your friends and family (who will also have skin in your game); talk to someone who made the same move. Ask how they feel now about their decision.
For professional or business decisions, try hiring a consultant. Find people who have deep, niche expertise and learn as much from them as you can.
The extra information you gather will almost inevitably help you make better choices in the future.
5. Give yourself enough time
I still remember the day I quit my job. As I climbed the two flights of stairs to my boss’s office, my heart was thumping in my chest. My legs were shaking and my mouth was parched.
I knew it was the right choice, but my mind raced: “Am I making a mistake? Should I turn around? Maybe I should stay another year.”
But, I made it to his office and had the conversation I was dreading.
I had been thinking about this leap for at least two years, and my side products were easily paying the bills. Taking time to choose empowered me to make one of the best decisions of my life.
6. Avoid hidden decisions
For nearly 6,000 years, North America’s First Nations hunted the plains buffalo by chasing them over cliffs and finishing the kill below.
This method enabled tribes to gather and store large quantities of meat, hide and fat for the long winter ahead.
I always wondered why so many bison would just run over the cliff. They were usually pursued by hunters on horseback, for one, but it’s also an example of herd behavior. All the animals are just following the group, letting the flow take them where it will.
Buffalo jumps are a good metaphor for hidden decisions or non-decisions, which we’ve all experienced at times. When you procrastinate or delay an important choice, you’re still making a decision — and it’s rarely a good one.
For example, maybe you need to part ways with an employee, but you put it off to avoid a potential confrontation.
If the employee is negative, unpleasant, or ill-suited to their role, the choice to wait and delay can poison the whole team. Non-decision is a choice with real consequences.
Those 35,000 daily choices can be daunting, but quick action is the enemy of decision fatigue. Choose fast and whenever possible, tackle your choices head-on.
Use as many methods as you need to pick the best solution. Just don’t follow the herd. Choose what’s best for you — and then stand firm in your decisions.
One final note: if you’ve started a business or launched a product and you’re feeling overwhelmed by all the decisions, please know that it does get easier. Once your business is stable, many of the big, foundational choices are done and you will reach equilibrium.
Then it’s time to focus on the constraints. Determine where you can make the most important, impactful decisions, and use them to grow or refine your business.
Remember: decision-making gets easier with practice, and a new choice is always just seconds away.
How To Be Successful
Simple, though not always easy
Someone once emailed me to ask,
“What belief, behaviour, or habit has most improved your life? And what two things do you think makes people so successful?”
Bud, I don’t even have to give you two. I only need to give you one. (And actually, you know what? I’ll break that one into two just to humor you and really get down into it. See “how to get” it, below.)
It’s not planning. It’s not passion. It’s not introversion or extroversion. It’s not intelligence.
The number one thing is PERSEVERANCE / GRIT
Taking action, regardless of setbacks, rather than making excuses. Pushing through. Relentlessness. Work ethic — but even in the face of adversity. Hunger.
I read a shit-ton of biographies, autobiographies and memoirs, and one thing I’ve noticed across all of these amazing people? Their response to incredible challenges, situations where most people would fold — but they kept going.
The difference with successful people isn’t that they never experienced setbacks — it’s that they didn’t stop.
I know a lot of readers just skimmed this post for “the one thing” answer and a lot checked out after reading it, like: “yeah yeah yeah okay — I get it!” Which is adorably ironic, because they don’t. Many of us — myself included, often — don’t internalize what perseverance, grit and relentlessness means enough to harness it.
Perseverance is not surface-level.
If you think perseverance means making a show of productivity, or working half-heartedly, without alignment with a deep underlying goal, then you’re wrong.
Perseverance isn’t stand-alone. It’s always rooted in something stronger than itself.
In other words:
Grit and relentlessness may be the number one CAUSE of success, but they themselves are EFFECTS of something deeper.
How to get grit
The two things that make it up:
1.) Knowing with absolute specificity what you want.
2.) Wanting it more than you want anything else.
Get those two things, and the rest resolves itself. You won’t need plans, you won’t have to fall back on or recall your “passion.”
What “want” looks like
It means not having to be told what to do. It means ownership. Most of us slack on this — myself included.
As Tim Grover wrote in Relentless,
“Tell yourself what to do, and stop waiting for others to lay it all out.”
Desire is intrinsic and instinctive, not extrinsic or authority-based. It’s action and ownership over excuses.
It’s not thought. It’s not even emotion, really. It’s energy; certainty; flow.
How do you “know what you want?”
Fam, I don’t know what you want. I can’t tell you that, because I’m not you. You need to work out the details for yourself.
But: you just know. Engage and see where you lean. Whatever is authentic; whatever makes you energized; whatever gives you flow and certainty and power.
What “specificity” looks like
It either has metrics defined in the goal (lose 50 pounds) or parameters are defined by external systems (win a chess tournament.)
But “lose weight” is not a goal. “Start a business” is not a goal. “Be the best basketball player” is a goal, but “play a sport” is not. Be a top chef, yes, “learn to cook” no. “Find a hobby” is not a goal, and neither is “discover my passion.” If you think any of those are, your real goal is “figure out your shit.” And the solution isn’t to sit around daydreaming up a big plan, or “soul-searching,” because that quickly becomes navel-gazing. The solution is to chase what interests you.
What wanting it “more than anything else” looks like
Here’s what people don’t internalize:
Wanting it ‘more than anything else’ means: making sacrifices.
If you are truly “all-in” on one thing, you give up other things. So: what are you willing to sacrifice to get what you want?
This is why I have absolutely zero patience for people who claim to be “100% focused” on things like “finding a spouse by [x age]” — but then immediately cite a checklist of total bullshit.
Fam, no. It’s adorable to hold out for both when you have time. But as you get down to the wire, you have to decide: you either want someone within that timeframe — and you’ll relinquish your lame checklist, or you’re willing to hold out for perfection — and risk never finding them. You are always choosing one of these, whether you actively do so or not.
And it’s the same with any goal.
Perseverance is not inspiration or motivation or “feeling like it”
Serrriously fuck off with this shit.
I say this all the time, but:
‘Inspiration’ and ‘motivation’ are the greatest crocks of the universe.
Too many people think that successful people are more “motivated.” Dawg, I don’t even know what that means, but if you mean “relentless hunger,” then go get it — you have everything you need.
Anything who’s accomplished anything of value does it outside of the hours of feeling “motivated” to do so. Successful people do it regardless. I’m not saying you don’t get inspired — that’s wonderful, Susan — but inspiration is never what carries anyone to the goal line.
Elizabeth Gilbert called it “working like a mule.”
In his book Relentless, Tim Grover wrote, of the hard work required of excellence:
“I’m not telling you to love it. I’m telling you to crave the result so intensely that the work is irrelevant.”
He also wrote,
“You can read clever motivational slogans all day and still have no idea how to get where you want to be. Wanting something won’t get you anywhere. Trying to someone you’re not won’t get you anywhere. Waiting for someone or something to light your fire won’t get you anywhere.”
So what will, you ask? It’s like you didn’t even read, because the answer is:
- Knowing with absolute specificity what you want.
- Wanting it more than you want anything else.
And how do you know “what you want?” To reiterate:
It’s either screaming in your face, or others are. Sometimes it’s both, but you only need one.
Do the work — even when it’s hard
Be uncomfortable with the uncomfortable.
Keeping going when things get hard. Because they will.
And if you want it badly enough, you will.
People struggle to develop and maintain new habits because they make their efforts unsustainable.
- They work out like crazy for a few days (usually at the beginning of the year), and never go back to the gym.
- They try to meditate for 30 mins one day and don’t give it another shot until 10 days later
- They try to build an empire fueled by a burst of inspiration on a random Saturday afternoon.
When people attempt to make a change this way, they overlook the profound power of consistency. When it comes to developing and maintaining a new habit, frequency matters more than intensity. If you do something frequently, a compounding effect will start to take place.
Build the Identity of the Person You Want to Become
To build the identity of the person you want to become, ask yourself what the behavior of a person who has the habit you want to develop is?
- What is the behavior a person who is in shape? They go to the gym consistently
- What is the behavior of a prolific writer? He or she cracks open a notebook every day.
James Clear refers to this as identity-based habit formation. In An Audience of One, I shared a story James told me on the Unmistakable Creative podcast about one of his readers who lost over 100 lbs. Instead of setting a goal to work out, he set a goal to drive to the gym, and he would only allow himself to stay for 5 minutes. After a certain point, he realized that he might as well work out. If you take the first step towards a habit, the inertia is often enough to carry you to the next one.
Note: I was fortunate to get a sneak peek at James’ New book, Atomic Habits(available for pre-order on Amazon). An interview with him, which will air next wee inspired the idea for this post.
Take Minimum Viable Actions
Sometime last year we launched an online course called Finish What You Start. In the process of developing that course, our copywriter Kingshuk Mukherjee came up with the term minimum viable action. In the same way, a startup can launch a minimum viable product; you can take minimum viable actions to develop a new habit.
- If you want to develop a writing habit, your minimum viable action could be sitting down at your desk or cracking your notebook open
- If you want to read more, it could be sitting down in a specific chair with a book in your hands
When you take a minimum viable action, the inertia is often enough to carry you to the next step. You build momentum and the identity of a person who has your desired habit until you become the next best version of yourself.
Raise Your Level of Intensity Gradually
In a recent episode of the Unmistakable Creative, I asked Chris Bailey how people can get better at managing their attention. And he said the following:
If you’re not on a deadline, you’re going to work on something until you feel no resistance to it. Could I write for an hour today? No the thought of it puts me off. What about 45 minutes? Thirty-two? Twenty fifty? Yeah, I can do 15. Then refocus for 15 minutes. You find that resistance level to tame distractions and then over time as you ritualize this idea you block off periods in your calendar to get into this mode. Over time you lower that default level of stimulation the amount of dopamine coursing through your brain because of this novelty bias that’s embedded within us and you become better able to think more deeply about your work.
When something becomes effortless for you, raise the level of intensity. In the same way, you’d never go from lifting 25lbs to 100lbs in one day, you want to increase the level of intensity to the point where you can get there without too much resistance, but it’s still somewhat challenging. To put it more concisely, bend but don’t break.
What if You Miss a Day?
After 7 years and 2 books, I still miss the occasional writing day. Sometimes it’s because I’m in bed with someone (a good reason to miss a writing day). Other times it’s because I’m hungover, and occasionally I need a break. One way to handle this is to reduce the scope but stick to the schedule. Instead of writing a 1000 word, I write 500. Many people quit altogether after they miss one day. But if you make your goal progress instead of perfection, you won’t be so demoralized by missing one day.
Develop a Keystone Habit and Stack More
When you try to change too many habits at once, none of them stick. If you try to become a person who reads every day, writes every morning, goes to the gym 3 times a week, and meditates daily all in the span of a week, none of those habits will stick.
But if you start with one keystone habit, it will create a ripple effect into every other area of your life.
- One of my first keystone habits was surfing. When I got into the habit of surfing almost every other day, I started drinking less when I went out. I valued being up in the morning because that’s when surf conditions are usually best.
- After I developed the keystone habit of writing 1000 words a day, what followed was reading every day, and eventually a consistent meditation habit.
The best time to stack a second habit is after you’ve maintained the first one with consistency. If you go through this process of stacking, eventually you’ll find yourself making the impossible possible.
The Compounding Effect of Habits
Every now and then I have a friend who will tell me they want to learn how to surf. I share a story with them that I mentioned in my previous book, Unmistakable: Why Only is Better Than Best.
A few weeks after my first three attempts to surf, I went to happy hour at a bar in La Jolla. The guy sitting next to me had been a long time surfer who gave me a simple piece of advice that made the difference between me quitting and becoming a surfer. He told me to go 50 times because by that point I’d be too invested to quit.
While he didn’t state it explicitly, he understood that every surf session would have a compounding effect. It took more than 15 sessions before I stood up on a wave. Eventually, I worked my way down from the Costco Wavestorm to riding a 6-foot shortboard and found myself surfing at a skill level that seemed impossible when I started. I had a similar experience with snowboarding. After two seasons and close to 30 days on the mountain, I got to a point where I was able to get down a black diamond.
The progress we experience from the compounding effect of any habit isn’t immediately visible. As a result, people give up quickly. They don’t realize that every day the show up they’re building momentum. They are moving closer and closer to a breakthrough or inflection point.
Systems Vs Goals
I’ve said before that having a system is essential increasing your creative output. Having a system allows you to focus on progress instead of perfection and put your energy and effort into what you control. A system also will enable you to experience visible progress, which in turn increase your motivation. In the picture below you’ll see three jars of marbles. Each jar represents a system that’s tied to a specific goal.
- Jar 1: I put one marble in for each hour I spend doing deep work like reading and writing, and another for each article I publish. It’s the system that is aligned with my goal of growing our email list to 50,000 subscribers.
- Jar 2: I put one marble into the jar for each sales call I make or email I send to people who might be able to hire me as a speaker or advertise on the Unmistakable Creative. It’s the system that’s aligned with my revenue goal.
- Jar 3: I put one marble into the jar for each day I go to CrossFit, surf or exercise. It’s the system aligned with my goal to lose the little bit of a gut that I have before my sister’s wedding in February.
It’s my personal adaptation of the paper clip method.
Purpose and Meaning
It’s worth considering why you want to develop some habit. People read articles like this one and think that’s the reason to develop a habit. They treat guidance like gospel and make decisions that aren’t aligned with their essential priorities. There’s nothing that everybody should do, even though there are plenty of people who will tell you there are. (Most of them they also sell products for how to do that thing they say everybody should do). The goal isn’t to live a life that’s just efficient, but rather a life that’s meaningful.
From writing 1000 words a day to learning how to surf, I’ve seen the compounding effect of habits over and over in my life. As I said in An Audience of One, habits are at the building blocks of all creative work and for that matter just about every goal you’d ever want to accomplish.
Everything You Fight Has Power Over you. Everything You Accept Doesn’t.
We continuously seek answers outside of ourselves. We look for them in self-help books, podcasts, seminars, mentors, and spiritual teachers. But continually looking outside ourselves for answers isn’t exactly a vote of confidence in the expression of our soul’s calling. Eventually, to find our answers, we must turn inward. But going inward requires us to brave the wilderness, explore uncharted territory, and in the words of my friend AJ Leon, not follow well-lit paths, but grab a machete and hack our own.
When we go inward, we can no longer avoid our pain. We have to confront it. But there’s a strange paradox to pain. The more we fight it, the more we empower it.
Everything you fight has power over you. Everything you accept loses its problem it never gets solved? But when you finally let it go, somehow it gets sorted out. A perfect example is dating. In his course on relationships, Mark Manson says one of the best ways to meet somebody is to find something better to do than trying to meet somebody.
When the longing, striving and pushing to get what you so desperately want finally come to an end you’re free. It’s only from that place of freedom and unapologetic, no-bullshit, self-expression that you can create what Jennifer Boykin calls your beautiful immortal work and live a meaningful life.
When we surrender to the circumstances we’ve been fighting, they lose all of their power over us. But we have to be careful not to confuse surrender with resignation or apathy. When we surrender, all of our actions come from a place of peace and abundance. When desperately we fight a circumstance, we do so with the frenetic energy of chaos and scarcity.
A few days ago I was in a meeting with my content strategist. We were looking at book sales for An Audience of One, and I saw that we’d sold roughly 50 copies over the course of the week. That wasn’t going to put me on any bestseller list, or make my publisher salivate. But it made me recognize the importance of playing the long game. It was my moment of surrender. With surrender, I found clarity. I asked him what small things we could do to move the needle, and all of the following ideas came to surface:
- Change the copy on the home page and feature someone’s Amazon review
- Create a new graphic with all the pictures readers had posted on Instagram and use it in our newsletter.
A focus on progress gives you power. A focus on perfection disempowers you. When we’re obsessed with perfection, we overlook progress and fail to appreciate our accomplishments.
If I were only satisfied when I sold 10,000 copies of my book, I would have completely disregarded and not appreciated the fact that I had crossed the threshold of my first 1000 copies.
It’s likely we can find everything we crave from some external source within ourselves. However, it requires inner work. We can’t order it on Amazon Prime and have it show up at our doorstep the day after tomorrow. The hedonic treadmill is necessary for economic sustainability. If everybody woke up one day and decided they were enough, had enough, and didn’t need to buy anything else, the economy would collapse.
When Things Don’t Go Your Way
Surrender doesn’t mean that you won’t ever be disappointed and that everything will go your way:
- Somebody will break your heart when you put it on the line . My sister had probably the most wise perspective on relationships I’d heard in ages. “Everybody is going to break up with you eventually until you meet the person you marry.”
- You might get fired from a job, but it could end up being the best thing that ever happened to you.
- A creative project might fail to live up to your expectations, but what you learn from it could be a profound personal growth experience.
If you choose to live a full-color, full contact, and fully self-expressed life, you’re going to have setbacks and disappointments. The only way to avoid disappointments is not to take any chances at all. That’s an incredibly limited way to live your life. As I said in An Audience of One, “Your circumstances can give you colors to paint with.” It’s all material.
Honor the Past
For most of us, when we think of a challenging experience from our past, whether it’s a relationship that didn’t work or a job that we got fired from, we focus on the negative and overlook the positive. We carry that energy with us into the future, and the future ends up looking like the past. But when we honor the past and take the most valuable lessons from it, and the power it has over us dissolves.
One of the exercises in a book I was reading was to write something great about every person who broke up with you. But you don’t just have to apply this to intimate relationships. It can be applied to just about anything. When you do that you see that often people give you many amazing gifts despite the pain they might have caused you. As Dani Shapiro wrote in Still Writing, the blessing is next to the wound.
- If weren’t for the bosses who fired me, I might not be an author today
- One girl I dated taught me how to cook, another to dress better, and so on. It didn’t work out. But it didn’t mean there wasn’t a positive gain from it either.
- A few weeks ago my business partner Brian Koehn and I decided it was time for us to part ways. But we both agreed ending our friendship would be a much higher cost than ending our partnership. He kept us from going out of business in 2014, helped turn our business around, and because he’s left it’s forced me to step into the role of CEO finally.
When you let go of the resentment you feel towards a person who hurt you and forgive them or make peace with a difficult experience from your past, it loses its power over your and more importantly over your future. When you accept your setbacks, they become an opportunity to turn endings into new beginnings.
As somebody who has dealt with cycles of depression, I’m hyper-aware of the fact that this is easier said than done, particularly when you’ve just come out the other side or are still braving the wilderness. Here are some things that I’ve found to be helpful to both honor and let go of the past.
- Gratitude: While gratitude doesn’t magically solve problems, it is a subtle energetic shift that can also begin to shift your mood. When you practice gratitude, you become aware of all the great things in your life you usually take for granted.
- Upgrade Your Environment: Nothing has a more profound impact on your behavior and your emotions than your environments. While you don’t have to burn everything from your past in a blazing inferno (although that can be fun), you want the environment to be representative of who you’re becoming, your next chapter, not your previous one. This alone can have a dramatic impact in making you feel better. My conversation with Jim Bunch goes into extensive detail about the role of environments.
- Go to Therapy: I think everyone should see a therapist at least once. A therapist is like a trainer, but for your brain instead of your body. They raise your awareness of patterns in your life. And they’re objective. You can tell them anything without any shame or fear of how you’ll be judged.
- Self Care: Do something nice for yourself to close a chapter of your life and start a new one. Upgrading your environment is a form of self-care. Exercise, travel and new hobbies can all be forms of self-care.
- Perspective: The other night I took a Lyft from Denver to Boulder. My driver was from Congo. He told me about the civil war, corruption, and poverty in Congo. Then I asked him about his work schedule. He drove for 10 hours each day or until he earned $200.00. It was 1 am when he dropped me off, and I asked him if I was his last ride of the day. He said that he planned to keep driving. When I heard his story, suddenly all the things I was feeling stressed about didn’t seem to matter all that much. Who would have guessed that my Lyft driver would become a spiritual teacher?
When we honor the past, we create an open space for the future. When we cling to the past, we’re likely to repeat it.
Honor What Could Be and Embrace Uncertainty
There are many things I thought would have happened in my life by the time I turned 40: marriage, family, etc. And they haven’t. For the first time in my life, I’m being forced to accept that kids might not be in my future. There are three potential scenarios for every life circumstance:
- The way we thought it would be
- The way it currently is
- The way it could be
When the way it currently is isn’t the way we thought it would be, we’re shut off to the possibility how it could be. We are effectively trying to turn the past into the present.
Honoring what could be means honoring uncertainty. And for most of us, uncertainty causes fear, anxiety, and a projection of worst case scenarios. But as Michelle Florendo said on a recent episode of Unmistakable Creative, what we overlook when it comes to uncertainty is the amazing things that could also happen.
The Divine Order of the Universe
If you’re feeling behind the eight ball and you’re thinking you should have the bestseller or the marriage, or why did that happen, or why’d you get fired, if you’re in a dark place, just take one grain of what I’m saying now. Just believe me for a nanosecond, that really, there is a divine order to things. Every single disappointment and I’ve had some significant ones. Every failure, every heartbreak, everything that I went after so, you know, vigorously that didn’t turn out, thank God. I was spared some kinds of destiny. I just have a deeper level of trust now. Doesn’t mean it’s easy all the time. Doesn’t mean I don’t want what I want.” — Danielle LaPorte
There seems to be divine order to the events of the universe:
- Every loss becomes an opening for a gain
- Every setback becomes an opportunity for a comeback
But embracing the divine order of the Universe requires faith in forces beyond our control. It’s difficult to see the good that will come from something terrible in the moment that it happens. It’s often something that we only recognize in retrospect :
- I thought not getting a job offer from Intuit after my summer internship and graduating into the great recession was the worst thing that could happen to me career-wise. But it turned out to be the catalyst for starting what eventually became the Unmistakable Creative Podcast.
- In 2013, I was laid off from a freelance writing gig. The woman I reported to said I was outgrowing the role. Shortly after that, I self-published The Art of Being Unmistakable, which became a Wall-Street Journal best-seller, and eventually led to a book deal to write An Audience of One: Reclaiming Creativity for Its Own Sake, and Unmistakable: Why Only is Better than Best.
Thanks to the divine order of the Universe, I was spared working at a job I probably would have hated, and spared writing about subjects I didn’t care
Surrender goes counter to nearly every one of our cultural instincts, in which we’re taught to, strive, hustle, grind, kick ass and take names. But when you surrender, the result is inspired action. It has a different kind of energy to it. What we know about energy is that like attracts like. Acting out of desperation results in more desperation. Acting out of inspiration results in more inspiration. The paradox of surrender is that it puts you in a position of power.