Did you know that 40% of our actions are habitual? We live so much on autopilot it makes sense to ensure that our automatic habits are ones that are serving us, making us healthier, happier and wealthier day by day.
Not all habits are created equal. Some habits are very easy to install and can be fully implemented in 30 days (i.e., flossing your teeth). And some habits can be quite difficult to install (i.e., exercising, eating healthy) and may take six to nine months or more before they become an effortless and routine part of your life. And not all habits have the same life changing benefits. For example, it is dubious whether or not taking vitamin supplements improves your health. But it is scientific fact that walking 30 minutes a day will improve not just your physical health, but also your mood, energy, sleep and happiness. So while we may start walking to improve our health, it has knock on benefits that improve so many other areas of your life as well.
Given how challenging it can be to install a new habit, it makes sense to focus on the cornerstone habits that will make the biggest difference to your life. The 80/20 Rule really works with respect to exercise. Going from couch potato to walking 30 minutes a day has enormous benefits. You don’t have to run a marathon or become a gym go-er to reap huge rewards with fairly minimal effort. That is the good news.
Of course, when I learned of compounding habits, I immediately wanted to know which habits, of all the possible habits would add the greatest bang for the buck.
What habits have knock on benefits that positively impact multiple areas of your life and make you feel happiest? Here they are:
If there is one thing to do to improve your health, happiness and well-being, this one is the kingpin of habits. Do whatever you have to do to get half an hour of exercise in every day and you’ll be healthier and happier. But you know this already, so let’s not make this more difficult than it needs to be. Let’s start with the easiest exercise of all—walking. And the key to implement this exercise is to start ridiculously small. Make it so easy that you can’t not do it. For starters, this week your task is to unearth a pair of comfortable walking shoes. If you don’t have them, buy them. Next week, if you are a social person, your task is to knock on a neighbor’s door and ask them if they’d like to walk with you (socially distanced, of course).
You’ll be more likely to succeed if you have some accountability and neighbors are handy. Set a time that you can do regularly every day. Start easy. Five minutes is fine. Gradually increase your time by five minutes a week and before you know it, you’ll be walking 30 minutes a day and you may find you deepen a friendship in the process. If you are introverted, you can use this walk as a chance to listen to an audio book or music or the sounds of nature and go solo. You might consider getting a dog that needs walking twice a day so that you have a reason to go when you don’t feel like it.
Another cornerstone habit. Those who meditate 10 minutes a day feel happier, more focused, calmer and more productive. This is another simple habit that has massive benefits. Yet few feel they have the time. You don’t have to use every spare second to check your email or texts. I find the easiest way to build in meditation throughout the day is to show up 10 minutes early to any appointment. Then instead of checking my phone, I simply sit and do nothing but focus on breathing. This provides a calming influence throughout the day.
Writing about your day, thoughts, feelings is the cheapest form of therapy around. A journal can be a safe dumping ground for rants so that you don’t end up dumping on your nearest and dearest friends and family. Use your journal to release those negative feelings. Side benefits also include an increase in creativity.
In fact, Julia Cameron, the author of The Artist’s Way, recommends that you write three pages a day to tap into your creative nature, whether you are a painter, sculptor, writer, or business person who wants to come up with better ideas at work. I call these my morning pages and start each day with three pages. You might prefer to write in the evening before bed to sum up the day’s events. The happiness benefit is not just in having a place to vent some steam but also a place to reflect on the good things in life. Once or twice a week you might jot down all the things you are grateful for and bask in a little self-appreciation. This is a sure-fire way to boost your happiness levels!
Beware the top three potential pitfalls when installing new habits:
1. Relying on willpower or motivation.
We are notoriously bad at sticking with new habits. The secret is to focus on creating a rock solid structure of support for the first few months while you are putting in place the new habits. That might mean hiring a personal trainer so that you actually do a bit of weight lifting or taking the time to find a buddy who will walk with you in the mornings. You can use sticky notes or other visual reminders so that you don’t forget or set an alarm on your phone when it is time to meditate. I like the app HabitShare as you can track your own habits as well as a friend’s or group so you share some accountability.
2. Doing too much at first.
Most people start thinking they’ll go to the gym and do an hour of exercise a day. This is way too much! Really, start with just the goal of getting to the gym and doing five minutes, then leaving. Make it so easy and painless that you actually want to do more. Don’t make the mistake of overdoing it, getting injured and then quitting. Better to just do the tiniest, easiest amount because the important thing at the start isn’t so much the exercise itself, it is the implementation of the habit.
If you think writing three pages sounds like a lot, just write one sentence in your journal each night. Then the next week write two sentences. Then the next week write three. If meditating sounds challenging, try the headspace.com app and get 10 minutes of guided meditation for free each day. Remember, the important thing is not to start out with a massive effort or time commitment, but to get the actual habit started.
3. Implementing too many habits at once.
It is better to focus on one change at a time until it is fully integrated and has become automatic. Then add in the next habit. The only time it is easy to make a sea change of habits is when you’ve just moved, started a new job, or returned from a long holiday or sabbatical. Then all your habits are up for renewal and you can put in place the ones you want right from the start.
Write down your ideal morning and evening routine, post it and do it right from the start. Otherwise, just focus on 30 days at a time, one habit at a time. Be easy on yourself. If you miss a few days, instead of beating yourself up, take a look at what you need to do to reinforce your structure of system for support. You’ll be much more likely to succeed if you focus on the support system you need and that might be as simple as putting your journal on top of your pillow so you remember to write before bed or as complex as getting a dog so you have to go out for a walk. Keep tweaking your system until the habit becomes natural. Then you’ve nailed it! Congratulations!
Bonus Cornerstone Habit
I can’t resist adding one bonus cornerstone habit: investing for your financial freedom. The beauty of this habit is that you can completely automate it so that you don’t even have to think about it or do anything on a daily basis. Yet the benefits for life happiness and security are enormous. Who wouldn’t want to be financially free and independent so that you could retire earlier and do work that you enjoy whether or not it pays the bills? Yet so few people take advantage of the joys of automatic investing.
The first place to start is to go to your Human Resources department and make sure you are getting the full company match to your 401K plan at work. If you are self-employed you can set up an individual 401K plan at Vanguard.com or similar investment house such as Fidelity or BlackRock. Then set up automatic investments to be deducted from your pay check or checking account automatically into a target retirement date fund or LifeStrategy fund or well-diversified low-cost indexed fund. This will put you straight onto the path to financial freedom. No daily effort required. In fact, the less you meddle, the better as your investments compound over time, making it the ultimate compounding habit.
If you aren’t sure what to do, ask the helpful folks at Vanguard and they will help you get set up. Knowing you are saving and investing for the future will make you happier and you’ll be very happy when you reach financial freedom! If you’d like to learn how to become financially free faster, check out my new FIRE Course available online.
Disclosure: You’d be advised to speak to your financial planner first to make sure this strategy works in your overall financial plan. LifeCoach is not an affiliate with Vanguard. I personally use Vanguard because they offer the lowest cost indexed funds and have been steadily reducing their fees to their clients over time. Of course, you should do your own research. Other low-cost investment houses are BlackRock and Fidelity who have some low cost indexed funds in among their high cost funds. In investing, you get what you don’t pay for so don’t assume paying fees means better results. All evidence points to the contrary.