Focus on building good foundational habits and almost like magic you’ll find yourself improving your habits in other areas of your life.
“Fostering good habits takes energy, and that energy is in short supply; we’re better off exploiting that energy to create the habits that will do the most good.” ~ Gretchen Rubin
In Better Than Before: Mastering The Habits Of Our Everyday Lives, author Gretchen Rubin explores how we create habits . . . and how we break them. She suggests strategies for keeping habitual behaviors that are beneficial to us. And she provides suggestions for habit forming and habit maintenance based on our individual tendencies.
To start, Rubin tells us, we should begin with foundational habits – the habits that most directly strengthen self-control. These habits reinforce each other and help in the formation of other good habits. In building new habits, the “habit of the habit is more important than the habit itself.” [Rubin]
Four pillars of a personal foundation
Rubin identifies 4 foundational habits upon which other good habits and a good life may be constructed. These 4 areas are (1) sleep, (2) movement, (3) eat & drink right, and (4) unclutter. The first 3 are the same as the habits Tom Rath spotlights in his book, Eat, Move, Sleep and he, too, recommends that you work on all 3 simultaneously: “New research shows that tackling multiple elements at the same time increases your odds of success, compared to initiating a new diet or exercise program in isolation. Eating, moving, and sleeping are even easier if you work on all three simultaneously. These three ingredients for a good day build on one another. When these elements are working together, they create an upward spiral and progressively better days.” [Rath] Let’s take a quick look at each of the foundational “pillars of habit”.
For many people, sleep is the most important of the 4 habits and possibly the one they neglect the most. If you don’t sleep well, you are less likely to exercise the next day. If you don’t sleep well, you are more likely to make poor food and drink choices. The key to having a great day begins the night before.
Rubin suggests to begin preparing for sleep before bedtime, before you get too tired. Brian Johnson, philosopher, teacher, and proponent of optimizing and reaching one’s potential, recommends a “digital sunset” — when the sun goes down, the electronics get turned off. The blue light that emanates from most electronic screens interferes with the brain’s ability to produce melatonin, which can in turn disrupt the body’s circadian rhythm.
Most adults need from 7 to 9 hours of sleep each night for optimal health and well-being. How much sleep do you need? Try this. Go to bed 15 minutes earlier each night until you wake up without the need for the alarm. That is roughly the amount of sleep you need.
Is there anyone today who doesn’t know that exercise is necessary for a healthy, happy life? Especially if you live a primarily sedentary life even walking 5 minutes every hour was shown to have a positive effect.
Rubin’s suggestion for turning movement into a long-term habit is to choose an activity that fits your individuality. Are you a morning person or a night owl? Do you prefer to spend time outdoors or would you rather not have to deal with weather conditions? Do you like to exercise with a group or a friend or do you prefer to exercise alone? Do you like to try new challenges (learning a new sport or skill, or pushing yourself physically) or do you enjoy familiar activities? Choosing the type of activity that fits your preferences can help you stick with it over the long term. The important thing is to choose something and get started. And remember, working out in the morning but sitting the rest of the day is still a sedentary lifestyle. Move throughout the day.
Eat and drink right
It is said that you can’t exercise your way out of a poor diet. Food is fuel and food is medicine. We eat for energy and for health. Or we eat for lethargy and sickness. It really is that simple.
There are masses of material about what constitutes a good diet – some reliable, some not so much. (I particularly like the ideas of Dr. Mark Hyman.) The important thing for our discussion is this: decide on a small change you can make to improve your diet – add more green, leafy vegetables, eliminate processed foods, add more “good” fats, cut back on sugar, etc. Then take the 1st small step to begin making the change a habit.
The 4th habit is at the heart of Brian Tracy’s Law of Correspondence which says, “As within, so without.” Your outer world is a reflection of your inner world. This law states that you can tell what is going on inside of you by looking at what is going on around you.
Few things sap your time and energy like clutter — physical, mental, and emotional. You must have space in order to think, to create, to breathe, and to receive. Clutter can be anything that is in your way, that isn’t useful (to you) or beautiful (to you). You may have a cluttered closet, a cluttered garage, a cluttered calendar, or the clutter of past relationships that has never been cleared up. “A clean, well-maintained environment,” says Rubin, “helps to foster a sense of self-command which in turn makes it easier to maintain good habits.” [Rubin]
Additionally, removing clutter from one’s life and environment, has also been shown to boost willpower – a necessary ingredient for forming a new habit. For example, in one study, two groups of subjects were given a set of questions to answer. One group sat in a neat, orderly laboratory. The second group set in a room so messy, it would give a teenager nightmares. Later, the group who sat in the untidy room scored lower on self-control tasks, such as taking a smaller sum of money immediately rather than wait a week for a larger amount. And when the two groups were offered snacks, the people who sat in the neat lab more frequently selected fruit and milk, while their counterparts from the messy room took candy and sodas. [Baumeister]
Build a strong foundation
Some estimates say that about 40% of our actions come through habit. We control those actions at the beginning, then they become automatic. “We first make our habits, then our habits make us.” Isn’t it better to choose to create habits that are beneficial to our health and well-being? Habits that allow us to thrive? A good place to start is on these foundational habits — getting enough restful sleep, moving our bodies more, eating and drinking more of the “good stuff” and less of the harmful, and uncluttering our environment to improve our ability to create other habits. “We are what we repeatedly do.” said Will Durant in The Story of Philosophy. “Excellence, then is not an act but a habit.” Build a strong foundation of these good habits and build upon it by adding others. Now you are in an upward spiral of improvement, growth, and excellence. And that is Excelerating!
Excelerated self-discipline — doing what you say you will do — is one step in creating your Excelerated life, a life of well-being, meaning, and purpose.
Baumeister, Roy F. and John Tierney. Willpower – Rediscovering The Greatest Human Strength. New York: The Penguin Press, 2011
Rath, Tom. Eat Move Sleep: How Small Choices Lead to Big Changes. Arlington, VA: Missionday, 2013
Rubin, Gretchin. Better Than Before: Mastering The Habits Of Our Everyday Lives. New York: Crown Publishers, 2015