“We first make our habits, then our habits make us.”
It’s hard to get much done without supporting habits in place.
Routines make or break us. They can make us feel sluggish, or they can free up energy for our most sophisticated, creative thinking.
I’ve talked about why a considered approach to breaking bad habits is important.
Bad habits always conceal an unmet need. By pinpointing that need, we can identify the positive opposite, or ‘Keystone Habit’.
When I’ve found the right Keystone Habits to work on, I focus on building those first and foremost. Keystone Habits turn life around in the shortest time possible. In mastering one, the knock-on effects spill over into many areas of life.
What follows are the types of habit, which from personal experience, have that potential.
For the right person with the right need, focusing on one or two of these habits will create a mini-revolution where everything just falls into place. It can feel surreal when this happens.
The 4 Types of Habit
Think of these 4 types of habit as occupying 4 levels. Knowingly or not, what happens on each level shapes the course of our lives:
Moving through each level, I’ll give 4 common examples of habits I find useful in my own life.
Level 1: Healthy Living Habits
Level 1 is the foundation. As a doctor by training, it would be remiss of me not to place this at number one.
I neglect these habits at my peril. Obvious long-term benefits aside, they create an immediate sense of grounding and stability in my day-to-day life. It’s amazing how many mood swings I can trace back to a physical cause – sugar lows, sleep deprivation, not getting outdoors enough…
As the apparatus through which all goals are executed, I only thrive when my physical body is taken care of.
Here are 4 examples:
- Exercise: if I could somehow package up the scientifically-proven benefits of exercise into pill form, I would be a multi-billionaire. It’s the biggest bang for your buck on time invested vs rewards reaped. A mix of intensity throughout the week is a good idea in order to avoid burnout.
- Healthy Breakfast: there’s an old saying: “Breakfast like a king; lunch like a prince; dinner like a pauper.” A big, wholesome breakfast with plenty of fibre sets up the day right. It’s a Keystone Habit because of the various knock-on effects, like curbing emotional eating later in the day and providing fuel to get my most important tasks done right away.
- Sleep: my own sweet spot is 7-8 hours per night. Experiment to find yours, and be rigid about getting up at the same time every day. Half the battle with sleep is won with a fixed routine.
- Cold Exposure: a bit more unconventional, but evidence points to a plethora of benefits from regular cold exposure – better mood, alertness, metabolism and recovery after exercise. There’s also something irreplaceable about kick-starting the day by doing something hard. Living in a perfectly fine-tuned, temperature-controlled environment isn’t what humans are adapted for. Check out What Doesn’t Kill Us by Scott Carney for more on this. (And always ask your doctor before trying cold exposure, especially if you have any pre-existing health conditions).
Level 2: Mindset Habits
Level 2 is where the so-called Inner Game gets sharpened. This is the most important Level, yet the one most neglected by the average person.
Every day, we’re in nearly constant conversation with ourselves, from the moment we wake up until hitting the pillow.
We repeat the same thoughts over and over, which become engrained and habitual. But the eye-opening truth is that how we think is malleable.
Our thoughts shape our emotional world, and emotions are felt in the body. So mindset habits are also about the mind-body connection.
If I’m not careful to maintain these habits, I’m naturally inclined to being pulled towards the negative. It’s how I’m wired, so this takes constant practice.
Pick some habits from this category, and watch the quality of your consciousness expand:
- Meditation: when I drop-in to observe my thoughts, emotions and bodily sensations for even 5-10 minutes each morning, I consistently notice a very concrete shift in my day. I feel solid and stable. Cultivating self-awareness and acceptance is a building block of emotional resilience. Meditation is a Keystone Habit because it bestows me with present-moment clarity. The potential benefits are far-reaching and too numerous to outline here.
- Journaling: a clearer mind and greater self-awareness spill over into every area of life in profound ways. Historian David McCullough says it best: “Writing is thinking. To write well is to think clearly.” There are many ways to use a journal. Here are my top three uses:
- Capturing Ideas: without somewhere to capture ideas, however terrible they may be (and believe me, plenty of them are), my mind gets cluttered. Regularly writing down ideas keeps me feeling light, creative and energetic.
- Expressing Gratitude: gratitude is a state of mind. It can be demonstrated openly, fostered in private, or both. By regularly switching perspective from what we lack to what we have, an inner richness and sense of abundance starts to permeate life. We stop seeing life as adversarial or in some way deficient.
- Bypassing Limiting Belief: if the way we think (our ‘cognitive habits’) doesn’t serve us, we can train ourselves into a new mindset. We can coax ourselves into an empowering growth mindset and start to recognise our inherent self-worth. One way I do this is through cognitive restructuring, discussed next.
- Correct Thinking Errors: one way I push through limiting beliefs is the practise of cognitive restructuring. Each week, I pinpoint the behaviour or belief most holding me back in life, and work on correcting any cognitive distortions (or ‘thinking errors’) underlying them. To get a feel for this, read the first couple chapters of Feeling Good by David Burns. It’s an excellent introduction.
- Schedule News/Social Media: the negativity bias is a seductive beast. For evolutionary reasons, humans are drawn to negative stimuli over positive stimuli. We’re inundated by news which trigger fear and anxiety. This doesn’t help when it comes to thinking clearly and maximising energy. Similarly, social media can become an energy-sink if not used intentionally. I limit time spent on these to cordoned-off segments of the day, to gain greater control over my inner world.
Level 3: Connection Habits
At Level 3, we have Connection Habits.
It doesn’t feel like it in the pandemic, but we’re currently living in the Connection Age. In research, ‘connection’ is one of the proven core aspects of meaningful, fulfilling work.
Sure our fixation with screens can affect the quality of this connection, but it all depends on how we use them.
Think of connection as the exchange of emotional energy between you and other individuals.
Here are 4 examples:
- Solo downtime: isn’t connection all about interacting with other people? Not quite – at least in my experience, it’s harder to connect with others meaningfully when I haven’t carved out enough time to connect with myself. They’re one and the same, and even hardcore extroverts need to strike a balance. Each day I choose something enjoyable to do alone, like reading a book, writing or just going for a walk. Even 20 minutes of total solitude doing nothing, daydreaming or brainstorming can generate a lot of energy.
- Connecting with Loved Ones: if there’s one thing the pandemic is teaching me, it’s that we need each other more than ever. Making a habit of checking-in with loved ones goes a long way to strengthening bonds and coping through hard times.
- Serving: it sounds lofty, but think of service more broadly. This could be offering free mentoring, helping someone with groceries or making my partner a nice breakfast. Service – not self-service. True giving means not expecting anything in return. True giving connects us to other people, as well as something beyond our own inner world.
- Allow for silence: ever notice how rare it is to find someone you can really open up to? Someone who just listens rather than jumping in with advice and solutions? Becoming an effective listener is a powerful, rare habit. One that demands presence and comfort with silence. Practise giving others the space to reveal their inner thoughts – there’s no quicker way to build a connection.
Level 4: High-Level Habits
Level 4 is a catch-all for habits related to learning/reflection, productivity and organization.
It’s crucial to strike the right balance between overthinking and underthinking. If I spend too much time on these habits, paralysis analysis ensues. Not enough, and I fall into procrastination and confusion.
Here are 4 important examples:
- Tracking: there’s an old adage: “You can’t manage what you don’t measure”. It’s true. Tracking is equal parts art and science – easy to overdo, easy to underdo and easy to get totally wrong by tracking things that don’t ultimately matter. But tracking sends a clear, potent message to the subconscious: “I must pay attention to this.” Feeding our minds vital data means we’re able to quickly correct course when veering off target. I have a simple Excel dashboard, with a few metrics linked to the global vision of what I’m aiming for in life.
- The Daily Plan: at least some vague outline of what I hope to get done each day is so much better than nothing. I make a plan for each day on Sunday evenings, then review it each morning. My morning routine involves doing the most cognitively demanding tasks first. The ones for which I need the most energy, enthusiasm and creativity (and this often means no email allowed).
- Monthly Budgeting: tracking finances is another powerful Keystone Habit and I’ve outlined exactly why in another article. Budgeting has the potential to transform many areas of life for the better, beyond merely the financial.
- Daily Study: most learning is seen as a means to an end. Schools churn out students who’ve been conditioned to see it purely as a way to make their resume look better. But a programme of self-directed learning can be a massive source of fulfilment. I strive to learn something daily, through non-fiction, Podcasts and courses. Learning is the portal to another version of reality – each time you do it, you literally emerge as a different, more complex person.
The 4 types of habit are strongly interlinked, and they reinforce each other.
At Level 1, Healthy Living Habits set us up for a solid day, keeping stress in check and making us feel centred. This can unlock energy to work on the other 3 Levels.
At Level 2, Mindset Habits take us deep into our inner world, so that we can show up in a positive way for others and eliminate barriers to enjoying the day.
At Level 3, Connection Habits nourish us further, giving substance and ultimately meaning to our existence.
And at Level 4, High-Level Habits help us reflect further, map a direction for life and correct-course when we go astray.
Work to build habits from these 4 categories and you won’t go far wrong.
This list is by no means complete. If any other habits have worked well for you, I’d love to hear about them!
Hope that helps and thanks for reading,