“We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act, but a habit.” – Aristotle
With a name like Dollar Habits, it seems almost obligatory to write about habits, doesn’t it? We thought so too and for good reason. The power of habits is a force to be reckoned with and is something we can each harness and employ to achieve our goals.
Now, this might come as a shock to you, but I am not the first person to ever write about habits or their power. Far from it, actually. There is a plethora of really amazing material out there about habits, written by people much smarter and more enlightened than me, so rather than pretend to be revolutionary in my thinking, I instead intend to share my thoughts and what I have learned along the way as it pertains to habits.
What Exactly is a Habit?
According to my pal, Webster (of the Merriam notoriety), a habit can be defined as: 1) a behavior pattern acquired by frequent repetition or physiologic exposure that shows itself in regularity or increased facility of performance; or 2) an acquired mode of behavior that has become nearly or completely involuntary. For the purposes of this discussion, we will focus on the latter.
At its simplest, a habit is basically an action (or inaction) performed repeatedly over time, which eventually becomes second nature. Are you familiar with the term “creature of habit?” This term is often used to describe someone who does or chooses the same thing over and over, often times without even really giving much, if any, thought to it at all.
For example, someone might choose to sit in the same chair in the conference room at work during each and every meeting or conference call simply because that is where they always sit and it has become their chair.
Is that particular chair any better or more comfortable than the other 11 surrounding the table? I highly doubt it, but, in their defense, maybe it feels nicer on their tooshie or maybe they have a better view of the clock. Who knows? If we stop to really think about it, I’m sure many of us are creatures of habit in one regard or another. I know I sure am.
“Habits are formed by the repetition of particular acts. They are strengthened by an increase in the number of repeated acts. Habits are also weakened or broken, and in contrary are formed by the repetition of contrary acts.” – Mortimer J. Alder
Now that we’ve defined what a habit is, let’s take a look at how habits are developed.
For many of us, some of our habits stem all the way back to our childhood. When we are young and impressionable, it is easy to pick up habits (both good and bad) from our parents, siblings, teachers, friends, etc. We have even witnessed this already with our 3-year-old. Not only does he pick up on stuff (like a thirsty sponge) from us, but he also picks up stuff from his little friends – some good, most bad (if only those other kids’ parents could be as amazing as we are!).
As we get older, even though, in theory, we are less impressionable than when we were little, we can still develop and adopt the habits we are exposed to from our parents and friends. Think back to high school (for some of you, you might not have to think back too far), did you ever pick up a habit from one of your friends? Maybe it was a good habit like going to the gym or studying diligently. Maybe it was a not-so-good habit like skipping class or smokin’ in the boys’ room.
We can even be conditioned to develop habits. Think back to Psychology 101. Pavlov’s dog, anyone? If you’re unfamiliar, you can read about Ivan Pavlov and classical conditioning here. One of my favorite episodes of The Big Bang Theory is when Sheldon tries to condition Penny with chocolates.
How Long Does it Take to Create a Habit?
Like with many things in life, there is some varying of opinions here. The conventional notion is it takes 21 days of repeatedly doing something for that something to become a habit. Depending on the source, the amount of days can grow all the way up to 254 days.
Let’s go with it taking at least 21 consecutive days of doing something for it to become a habit. The operative word here is “consecutive.” If you slip up and miss a day, you have to start over. Do not pass go. Do not collect $200. So, for example, if you want to get in the habit of exercising, you best get your butt to the gym for at least 21 consecutive days.
I first learned about the idea of a habit taking 21 days to create from the renowned leadership author, John C. Maxwell (one of the authors on the suggested reading list from the MLM I was involved with). I was fortunate to hear him speak on several occasions as well. To this day, he is my favorite author on the topic of leadership.
The Good, the Bad and the Ugly
“Your net worth to the world is usually determined by what remains after your bad habits are subtracted from your good ones.” – Benjamin Franklin
In Where There’s a Will, There’s a Why: Finding Your Purpose, we examined two types of motivation, positive and negative. Similarly, there are different types of habits – some good, some not so good and some downright destructive. These various types of habits apply to all areas of life.
Good habits are those which will propel you to success. If your goal is to run a marathon, eating well and training hard are habits which will help you along your path to accomplishing your goal. If you are working to get out of debt, eating out less and working diligently at your side-hustle(s) are good habits to develop to get out of debt.
On the flipside of good habits are, of course, bad habits. Bad habits are habits which we can develop, often unintentionally, which hinder and impede our path to successfully accomplishing our goals. Carrying on with the examples from above, if your goal is to run a marathon, eating donuts every day for breakfast and training like you will be participating in a competitive eating competition are not habits which will help you cross the finish line. Similarly, if your goal is to get out of debt, eating lunch out every day and spending money like a drunken sailor, in general, are habits which will prolongate or even prevent you from ever getting out of debt.
Finally, going above and beyond their bad habit cousins, destructive habits are ones which will send your dreams and goals to hell in a handbasket. Think drugs and alcohol for extreme examples. Destructive habits can certainly be less extreme than drugs and alcohol, but damaging nonetheless. If your goal is to run a marathon, getting in the habit of napping or playing video games instead of training can lead to the destruction of your goal, or at a minimum, a much worse performance. If your goal is to get out of debt, yet you develop the habit of spending all your money, maybe even before receiving your paycheck, you are severely hindering your chances of success.
Applying a Slight Edge
“The truth is, what you do matters. What you do today matters. What you do every day matters. Successful people just do the things that seem to make no difference in the act of doing them and they do them over and over and over until the compound effect kicks in.” – Jeff Olson
The Slight Edge is a tremendous book and I highly recommend it if you have not yet read it already. The premise behind the book is that it is the process of developing simple, daily habits which will lead to a successful life. Regularly doing the things which are not easy to do as opposed to the things that are easy to do will greatly improve the quality of your life and the results you experience. Remember, nothing worthwhile is easy.
It is often portrayed that in order to experience big change in your life, you have to make big, drastic changes. That certainly can be the case, but it is not the only way to make a big impact on your chances for success. There is a lot of truth to adages like “It’s the little things in life” or “Big things come in small packages.” According to The Slight Edge, you can make a big, big impact in all areas of your life by making small changes and developing daily habits which will advance your mission.
Some examples of these types of seemingly inconsequential habits would be doing 20 push ups first thing when you jump out of bed in the morning, choosing fresh fruit instead of a bagel or donut each morning, saving and/or investing a portion of each paycheck, etc. Some of these might seem pretty insignificant when you are doing them, but the compounded effect over time can have significant impact.
There is a lot of room for practical application when it comes to the topic of habits. We could probably all stand to adopt a few more good habits and kick a few more of the bad. I am a creature of habit, so habits come pretty easily to me, although that can be good or bad. Good, of course, if I develop a good habit with positive influence in my life and bad if I manage to get off course and let some unproductive habits slip into the mix.
There are a couple of areas which come to mind. One area of my life where I’m doing pretty well when it comes to habits is in terms of personal finance and managing our money. The area that first comes to mind where I stand to improve in the habit department is diet and exercise. Right now, my diet is pretty on point, but it can easily be derailed by letting a few bad habits creep in. With me, it is a very, very slippery slope. “Well, I already ate this entire bag of tortilla chips, a few (or 10) chocolate chip cookies to wash it down won’t hurt.” Rinse and repeat.
Exercise is another big one. I know the importance of it, it is just a matter of developing the habit and making the time for it. With a busy schedule, it can be a challenge to make time to exercise (notice I said “make,” not “find”), we just have to prioritize it and then create those daily habits which support it.
I have been trying to do this by taking the stairs at work instead of the elevator, doing 8 sets of 25 incline push ups against my desk throughout the day, and getting schooled in pickup basketball games by a bunch of neighborhood 13-year-olds after work. By developing these seemingly small daily habits, the results can add up to a decent bit of exercise throughout the day, much more than if I did not do any of them.
Moral of the story, whether it is with saving and investing your money or with your diet and exercise routine, find ways to adopt small, daily habits into your life. They can add up to making a huge difference over time.
Plan Your Habits
I have found that planning my habits greatly assists in my success and likely will for you as well. For example, if you are working towards eating out less for workday lunches, try planning your lunches at least the night before, if not at the beginning of the week. You can even take it a step further and make your work lunches for the whole week at the beginning of the week and then just grab and go. If I don’t plan and make my lunches ahead of time, I find myself in a predicament. Luckily for my bank account, I am too cheap to buy lunch out, so I will just “fast” that day.
The same goes for exercising. If you are like me and use a calendar app to schedule just about everything, you can use it to your advantage to plan your habit of daily exercise. As hard as it may be to make the time, I find that if I schedule a block of time, even just 15 or 20 minutes, to exercise, I am more likely to do it. Give this a try if it is not something you already currently do.
With personal finance, it is no different. You can leverage planning to create and execute on your habits. Creating daily, weekly and monthly financial habits and planning them out can lead to you accomplishing your money goals. For example, I block out time after each pay period to devote to managing our finances. I also block out a few hours at the beginning of each month to map out the game plan for the month ahead. Having done this now for a number of years, the practice has become habit and is now second nature. I am confident if I did not take the time to plan everything out and did not do so often and consecutively enough for it to become habit, we would be in a worse overall financial position.
Automate Your Habits
Building upon the concept of planning your habits and taking that idea one step further, I would suggest automating your habits. What do I mean by automating? Think automatic transfer to your 401(k) account with each paycheck. Automation can be a powerful tool to keep you on track with the habits you wish to develop.
Automation can work in the areas of diet and exercise, but it really shines in the realm of personal finance and managing your money. There are a plethora of apps available to automatically help you save or invest your money. You can elect to have 401(k) contributions taken automatically from your paycheck without you first seeing (or, more importantly, getting your hands on) the money. The same can be done with contributions to all sorts of financial accounts.
Leverage the Power
Simply put, habits can make or break you. The habits we develop, consciously or subconsciously, can dictate whether we experience a life of abundance and success or a life of struggle. Wealthy or broke. Fit and healthy or sick and out of shape. If you know you have some bad habits in your life, work to kick them to the curb as soon as possible. In fact, drop them like a bad habit.
As with many of our pursuits in life, it’s more about progress than perfection. If you slip up and let a bad habit creep into your life, identify it as quickly as possible and then work to rectify it. Spring is the perfect time to do some purging of bad habits. Out with the old and in with the new.
If there are some positive habits you would like to adopt and incorporate into your life, now’s the time. There is no better time than the present, as they say. We have just barely scratched the surface here, but there is a ton of life-changing information available in books and on the internet.
Taking action is key, so prioritize making time to evaluate your current habits and determine if you have any nonproductive ones in your life. If you do, give them the boot and spend the next 21 days working to create better, more productive habits in all areas of your life. Do this and the world is your oyster!
Do you have any bad habits you have struggled with in the past? Any you are currently struggling with? What tips and tactics have you used to incorporate better habits in your life?