LIFE – Habits are the Compound Interest of Self Improvement

“person wearing black-and-white Nike low-top sneaker” by SJ Baren on Unsplash

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 consistencyWhen 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.

Speculation is a dangerous pastime

How to Avoid Wasting Your Time and Missing Life

Speculation is a dangerous pastime

Photo by Seth Macey

“Time destroys the speculation of men, but it confirms nature.” — Marcus Tullius Cicero

Certainty is a dangerous game.

A poisoned arrow hit a man. Though a doctor was there to assist him, the man didn’t want the arrow to be removed. He was looking for answers first.

“Before you take this arrow out, I want to know if the shooter was a prince, a merchant, or a priest? What’s his name and where does he live? What kind of bow he used? Was the arrowhead an ordinary one or an iron one?” — he kept on and on.

The wounded man would rather die than not having all the facts.

Life is short. It must not be spent in endless speculation.

Worrying about possible ‘what ifs’ not only keeps your mind busy; it makes you focus on the wrong problem as it happened to the man who was shot.

Speculation doesn’t just steal your time; it drains your mental energy too.

The Time Thief

“There are two times in a man’s life when he shouldn’t speculate: when he can afford to and when he can’t.” — Mark Twain

When predicting the future, everyone claims to have the perfect answer. However, when looking in retrospective, very few can acknowledge that things didn’t go as they anticipated.

Perspective destroys certainty — that’s the effect of time on our speculations.

Oxford Dictionary defines speculation as “the forming of a theory or conjecture without firm evidence.”

Speculation is not just limited to predicting the future; this inefficient pastime also drives rumination about present or past events.

The hunger for certainty is one of the brain’s five functions. Uncertainty generates a strong alert response in our limbic system; that’s why we worry. Your brain doesn’t like not being in control — uncertainty is a pain that we try to avoid at all cost.

That’s why we love to speculate — we’d rather create a theory without evidence than not knowing what will happen.

The problem with certainty is that we adopt a scrutinizing mode — we are looking for evidence to prove our theory.

Dickson Watts, author of “Thoughts on Life” aphorisms, said: “Make your theories fit your facts, not your facts your theories.”

That’s the driver of financial speculation — people want to win big to be right big time. There are few things more unbalancing to the mind than the act of suddenly winning (or losing) large sums of money.

No one has explored the strange behavior of the American investor with more authority than Robert Shiller. In his book, ‘’Irrational Exuberance,’’ he departs from most economists’ assumptions that people are rational and fully informed.

The Yale University economist describes the group pressures and herd behavior that sustain investment — the amplification mechanism, as he calls it. People are prodded into the market, for example, by the ego-diminishing envy stirred by others having earned more in the market than on paychecks.

Speculation, in every aspect of life, is an irrational pastime. It’s much better to be vulnerable than to be right.

Jonah Lehrer coined the term ‘Information Craving’ to define our addiction to facts. We crave information for the sake of it. We don’t care if it will make us more effective or adaptive — it just reduces the sense of uncertainty.

A great example of speculation gone wild can be found on the talk shows. Rather than inform or report the news, they stray into guessing what might happen. The need to fill the void before real news unfold drives hosts to share their opinions and hypotheses as if they were factual.

The Danger of What Ifs

Speculation turns one fact into infinite facts.

Something happens (what) and we start asking ‘why?’ We fill the void with as many possibilities as we can create in the form of ‘what ifs?’ Finally, we end worrying about all the possible answers — one ‘what’ becomes infinite ‘whats.’

Counterfactual thinking is a concept in psychology that involves our tendency to create possible alternatives to life events that have already occurred. Most of the time, something that is contrary to what actually happened.

That’s the paradox of speculation — our desire to find certainty creates more uncertainty and worry.

What if speculations open up the past by demonstrating myriad of possibilities. However, we cannot change what happened. Speculation turns us into a prisoner of counterfactual — we get trapped by all the infinite chances that never happened.

The same happens when we get stuck trying to understand events in the present.

The dangerous side of speculating is that it keeps us busy while accomplishing nothing — rehashing every possibility prevents you from enjoying life.

John Lennon said it better: “Life is what happens when we are busy making others plans.”

Maybe you are waiting for feedback on a job interview. Or your best friend is not replying to a text you sent hours ago. Or your client unexpectedly cancels an important meeting without any explanation.

Your mind starts playing tricks — you get into an spiral of endless negative potential explanations.

When we don’t know, rather than wait for things to happen, our mind starts creating our version of what might have happened. Speculation turns into rumination — we can’t get past our thoughts.

Your mind gets stuck when you think about every possible ‘what if?’

Living in the ‘here and now’ is one of the most distinctive lessons from Buddhism. Western education, on the contrary, promotes speculation. We are told to analyze the past to learn lessons from it; we are encouraged to create hypotheses and use those learnings to predict future behavior.

What’s the point about worrying about the future if, when you get there, you will be worrying about some other future moment?

Buddhism invites us to recover the value of living in the present. Instead of being obsessed about what you don’t know (what if?), understand that life is in permanent transition. You cannot change the past; you can’t control what will happen in the future. Live the present.

When sharing his secret to happiness, the great philosopher Jiddhu Krishnamurti said, “Do you want to know what my secret is? I don’t mind what happens.”

Letting go of this addictive pastime is the first step towards recovering your time and stop wasting your life.

When in Doubt, Ask

“Confrontation is better than speculations.”
― Sunday Adelaja

Speculation is not knowledge — it’s just a waste of your time.

Knowledge doesn’t show up unannounced; you have to earn it — it requires dedication and sacrifice.

If you want to know what happened you have two options: ask or wait for things to unfold. Speculation creates imaginary problems; it’s the opposite of knowing.

We take an interview cancellation as bad news, but we don’t ask why — we fear a negative response. Ironically enough, we let our mind speculate about every possible negative explanation. We choose self-torturing ‘what ifs’ over confrontation.

Forming infinite hypotheses adds more complexity to a situation. Focus on what you know or what’s under your control.

Marcus Aurelius said, “Don’t let your imagination be crushed by life as a whole. Don’t try to picture everything bad that could possibly happen. Stick with the situation at hand, and ask, Why is this so unbearable? Why can’t I endure it?”

Rumors are another form of speculation. What makes one person’s gossip go viral is the desire to avoid uncertainty — that’s why everyone wants rumors to be true. The brain prefers an adverse, yet certain, outcome to not knowing what will occur.

It’s your call to fuel rumors or to wait until things really happen.

I’m not saying uncertainty is easy to deal with. However, trying to understand all possible routes will derail you from your destination. The way to solve complex problems is to get simpler perspectives.

Henry Thomas Buckle said: “To simplify complications is, in all branches of knowledge, the first essential of success.”

When we look at life in retrospective, nothing is as harsh as we speculated. Worrying makes things more complicated.


Embrace a maybe mindset

Nothing in life is permanent; even our worries change. Understanding that the future is out of your control is liberating. Focus on what you can manage. Experience events as they happen. To enjoy the present, you must empty your mind of what ifs.

maybe mindset will help you accept life as it comes and goes, as I explain here.

Most of all, we need peace and time to enjoy life. As Henry Thomas Buckle said, “In practical life, the wisest and soundest men avoid speculation.” Every time I found peace, is because I was focusing on the ‘here and now’ instead of speculating.

Please take a deep breath, put all your ‘what ifs?’ aside, and enjoy your life (not what might happen).

8 Effective Ways To Overcome Frustration Right Now

“A person walking in the desert leaving footprints with cloud in the deserts Algodones Dunes” by Nathan McBride on Unsplash

Show Life You Mean Business

“Our fatigue is often caused not by work, but by worry, frustration and resentment.” — Dale Carnegie

I have lost count of the times I experienced frustration over the years, since it rears its ugly head when I least expect it.

I feel its presence when I step out of my comfort zone, reminding me to stay calm, and diligent in the pursuit of my goal.

Frustration is a healthy sign of progress, despite the accompanying emotions. It denotes inner growth as you edge closer to your goal.

Frustration advises you to stay firm in your pursuit. Often, people give up when frustration ensues, believing the goal is unachievable.

I push harder during these times, and will not give up until I achieve my goal.

I adopt a no holds barred approach. If you are experiencing frustration, raise the bar when life throws you a lemon.

Don’t make lemonade — that’s a cliché used too often. Make the best lemon meringue ever.

Turn the lemons into gold bullions.

Show life you mean business.

Frustration is a signpost advising you not to abandon hope.

It’s not meant to stop your progress. It is a small speed hump suggesting you get organised, creative and excited and approach your goal with enthusiasm.

I experienced frustration some time ago with my public speaking engagements. I wanted more speaking work and was frustrated I was not where I should be.

I found myself complaining about my affairs. Once I settled down, I rediscovered my inner hunger that makes a person unstoppable. Frustration has taught me to stay inspired, enthusiastic, and persistent.

Frustration may be inviting you to remain patient. This is the most challenging phase because you want to achieve your goal now.

The following are ideas for dealing with frustration.

The truth is, you are allowed to be frustrated. Feel the emotion and channel it in a positive direction to realise your full potential.

“I feel as if I were a piece in a game of chess, when my opponent says of it: That piece cannot be moved.” — Søren Kierkegaard

1. Feel The Frustration

How does frustration feel?

Where do you feel it?

What does it look like?

Be with it and notice what it is asking you to do. Knowing your emotional constitution is a positive step toward uncovering the hidden meaning behind them.

2. Assess Your Goals

I’m not suggested you abandon your goals.

An airline pilot plots his course toward his destination, and you should do the same.

Do you really want this goal?

If so, why?

What would it give you or allow you to become once you achieve it?

3. Get Organised & Savvy

Now that you’ve felt the frustration and assessed your goal, it’s time to get organised.

This means being clear on how you achieve the goal or what route you will take to get there.

4. Seek Advice

Enlist the advice of those who have charted a similar path.

Be inquisitive about their journey. Remember, it is their path and not yours, so use discrimination in how you approach your journey.

Employ the advice that feels right.

Photo by Wu Jianxiong on Unsplash

5. Make Mistakes

Go out there and make mistakes.

My business mentor calls it fail fast.

His advice is, to make mistakes which do not harm your goals.

Give it a go and if it doesn’t work, learn from the mistake.

Get back on the horse and continue in the same direction — forward.

6. Act With Confidence

Develop a go get ’em attitude.

The same attitude your family pet dog has when you try to wrestle a bone or toy from his mouth.

They refuse to let go. Assume the same attitude and remain tenacious.

7. Take Time Away

While you want to be tenacious, it’s important to take time off on occasions.

Time off means time away from the pursuing your goal.

By taking a mini vacation, you are in a better position to revisit it with greater mental clarity.

8. Reward Yourself

Do something for yourself as a reward for your efforts. I recently upgraded the components on my road bicycle given the long hours spent during the past year.

It felt good to enjoy the fruits of my reward, instead of working harder. I’ll have fun riding my bicycle and it is a good reminder that hard work does pay off.

Appreciate that frustration is part of the journey towards your goal. The bigger the goal, the greater the frustrations.

Accept them as a natural process and reframe them. See them as stepping stones, not obstacles. Move through them, not around them.

Keep at it until you accomplish the goal, as there is nothing more satisfying than reaching a goal that once seemed unattainable.