When you woke up today, what did you do first, and in what order?
Did you go straight to the shower? Did you check your email first? Or Facebook and then email?
When did you brush your teeth in your routine? Which shoe did you tie first—the right or left? What did you say to your family before leaving?
What route did you drive to work? What did you do once you got to your desk? Did you go straight to your email, or did you chat with a colleague first?
And what about lunch? Did you have leftovers or a salad? Or maybe a burger?
What did you do once you got home? Go for a bike ride? Pour a drink and have some dinner?
I could go on and on with these questions, but here’s my point:
We truly are creatures of habit, and we all have deeply ingrained daily patterns of behavior.
In fact, according to a 2006 study conducted by Duke University, over 40% of the daily actions people perform aren’t actual decisions, but are habits.
In many cases, these habits are useful. They save us mental energy. We don’t need to decide newly each day how to put toothpaste on our toothbrush or how to go about washing our bodies.
But other habits are much more complex, can emerge without our “permission,” and can be quite troublesome.
For example, studies have shown that families that eat fast food regularly didn’t originally intend to eat as much as they do. The monthly habit eventually became a weekly one, which eventually became a bi-weekly one, until finally they’re eating junk food every day.
We can fall into this trap in any area of our lives.
Thirty minutes of TV per day can become sixty, and then one-hundred, and so forth. Skipping exercise once per week leads to skipping twice per week, which eventually leads to quitting. One drink per week can, for some, easily multiply in size or frequency or both.
The ramifications of such negative habits can be deceiving.
There are the immediate and obvious: you fall behind your peers in your work and get passed up on the promotion; you gain weight and feel lethargic; your health deteriorates; and so forth.
Then there’s the insidious: you lose faith in your ability to put your mind to something and see it through; you avoid challenges and opportunities for fear of failure; you criticize yourself, eroding your self-esteem; you become depressed; and so on.
Habits cut both ways, though.
Forty-five minutes of exercise several days per week, if done long enough, can transform your body. Thirty minutes of reading per day, over time, can turn you into an expert in just about anything. An hour or two of more work per day than your peers helps you produce dramatically more than them.
Much clichéd advice about achieving success focuses on the dreaming the right dreams and wishing the right wishes.
This is all well and good, but thinking dim thoughts does not make things happen. Our dreams may influence what we’re capable of, but our habits will ultimately determine what kind of lives we live.
Anyone can get energized by a tantalizing vision, but very few people can stick to the “daily grind” long enough to get there. Fifteen seconds of fantasy can take fifteen years of habitual action to fully realize.
“We are what we repeatedly do,” Aristotle wrote. “Greatness then, is not an act, but a habit.”
Show me a great achiever in any field or activity and I’ll show you a master of habit—someone that mechanically repeated the same, positive actions countless thousands of times until finally they had produced something extraordinary, whether a skill, fortune, invention, or even a sublime relationship with another person.
Controlling our habits can be quite hard, though. Some routines and actions are so ingrained that we find ourselves slaves to them, unable to do anything but mindlessly comply.
Well, this leads me to one of the great unsung benefits of using diet and regular exercise to stay fit…
Staying fit teaches us “habit mastery.” That is, it teaches us how to control our habits—how to break the bad and protect the good.
You see, you don’t overcome bad habits with voodoo rituals, exorcisms, or mortification. You beat them by simply creating new behavior patterns that overpower and override them.
Instead of watching that hour of TV every night to unwind, you let off steam with an hour of weightlifting. The enjoyment normally provided by the 3 PM cookie snack is replaced by an equally enjoyable apple with peanut butter. You trade the short-lived pleasure of junk food for the longer-lasting pleasure of improved health and overall well-being that comes with eating cleanly.
And interestingly enough, once you establish a new pattern, it quickly begins to feel just as automatic as the old no matter how different it is. Whatever we repeatedly do is what we want to continue doing, whether it’s eating ice cream in front of the TV or hitting the treadmill for some late-night cardio.
In this way, achieving your fitness goals becomes easy. You just keep doing what feels right, and you make slow and steady progress. Over time, these small improvements add up to something extraordinary, even if the whole process felt natural, comfortable, and even effortless.
By doing this, you not only show yourself that you can change your behavior patterns—that you are in control—but you also come to realize how powerful your routine really is.
And it begins to mold other areas of your life. You become different than other people.
You see, many people underestimate the time and effort it takes to make things happen. They don’t give much thought to the long-term habits all meaningful endeavors require. They just set off haphazardly, and they don’t last long in their journeys.
As you build your “habit mastery” through exercise and diet, however, you begin to look at all goals a bit differently.
You realize that new undertakings require new habits, and that often old habits have to go to make room. And you also know that the first month of a new habit is always the toughest, but that it becomes more and more automatic and familiar as time goes on.
You aren’t afraid of the idea that something will take one, two, or even three years of regular work to see through. You’ve learned patience—to appreciate the actions of today, no matter how small they might seem, for their contributions to the bigger picture.
Achieving a high level of “habit mastery” will gives you a huge advantage in other areas of your life.
People will talk about your superhuman work ethic and follow-through. They will marvel at the sheer amount of stuff you can get done.
Little will they know, however, that you don’t possess any mysterious superpowers.
You’ve just used fitness to develop a skill that many people don’t have, and don’t understand. And this skill enables you to do things that may seem extraordinary to others, but that feel completely natural to you.