Habits are behaviors that are done with little to no conscious thought. They are stored in a separate part of our brain, called the basal ganglia. Habits are extremely powerful because they can decrease our cognitive load on a certain task, and make 40% of our day-to-day behaviors. While you might think that you have a conscious influence on most behaviors throughout the day, checking social media first thing in the morning, taking a specific route to work, or eating while watching a Netflix show, are often done by habit. If we learn how to design them, we can make strenuous things look and feel effortless. If you realize what you want to do with your life and who you want to become, building habits around this purpose is the best way to make it happen as effortlessly as possible. More than that, habits can also be the kickstart for developing yourself towards these new goals that you set yourself. And while each habit means relatively little on its own, over time, what we eat, how we greet people, how we spend money, how often we exercise, and the way we organize our work routines have an enormous impact on our health, productivity, financial security, and happiness.
There are three types of habits: Action habits, keystone habits and meta-habits.
Some of you might know that I used to play tennis 5-6 times a week from 2010 until 2016, a year before I started studying in Munich. I strongly believe that sport has shaped my personality, has given me the confidence, proactivity and self-discipline I have today. Over the last few years, although I could not play us much tennis anymore (actually, I played none at all over the last months), exercising is still one of my main priorities. Especially over the last months, I have been working out at home about 5 times a week and I have recognized that it makes me feel more energized and overall more satisfied. Often, working out is the hardest thing I'll have to get myself motivated to do during the day. Therefore, when accomplished, everything else seems easier to do afterward. It sets the path for a day full of accomplishments. While in the beginning, it demanded a lot of conviction and energy to start my workouts, today, it has become a habit. The if-choice has been translated into a when-choice. It is a keystone habit because it has also triggered a more conscious, healthy eating behavior and a more productive work routine. I have started to cook more healthy, done more research on food and paid more attention to what I buy in the supermarket, which all adds up to an increase in my fitness.
About two years ago, I started experimenting with my sleep routines. During that time, I was often getting lost on my phone for way too long before I went to sleep and it badly affected my sleep quality. I slept late, felt bad seeing all these people posting their success stories on Instagram, and woke up tired, my eyes still hurting from the screen consumption the night before. I then started reading for half an hour before I went to sleep and it noticeably increased my sleep quality from day 1. I fell asleep easier and earlier, and woke up much more refreshed. As a bi-product of the reading habit, I gained so much knowledge about productivity, growth, and the science of human behavior, topics that I was always very interested in. Through that knowledge, I increased my performance at university, have more interesting conversations with inspiring people and it ultimately helps me lead a more interesting and happy life. Today, I often read for more than an hour every day, without really thinking about it. It has become another keystone habit.
Yes, this is a classic. But it really works for me. This is the simplified version of my exercise habit. Making my bed in the morning is the first thing I can tick off of my to-do list for the day. While it is easy to do, it gets me in the right mindset for the day and creates momentum. It is the first win in a series of challenges that are waiting throughout the day. Momentum increases the possibility of one positive behavior leading to a more effortless tackling of an upcoming challenge. It is like the "Diderot effect" of human behavior: a phenomenon that comes from consumer goods, based on the idea that one purchase increases the likelihood of future similar purchases. Additionally, making my bed in the morning makes my room look more cleaned up, which, for me, translates into more mental structure and clarity to get things done.
Notion has become my tool for everything and I absolutely love it. I write my notes, track my to-do's, write my Blog Post drafts, collect interesting sources and keep track of what I read in Notion. Doctor & Youtuber Ali Abdaal even refers to it as his second brain. However, now that I have made my love for Notion clear, I must say that this habit is not at all about the tool. Since I started reading more books, I was looking for a way to remember more of the things I read. While I was always highlighting parts in books that I found especially interesting or resonated with me, I never really got back to the books to read the highlighted passages. Then, I started summarising the books in Notion by dividing every book into a personal summary, a section for interesting concepts, and one for inspiring quotes. This forces me to go through all of the books for a second time, which already refreshes their ideas and strengthens my memory of their content. Now, I go back to the books way more often than before and I realize that I remember much more of them. I also find it easier to access ideas whenever I need or simply want to revisit them. Although it takes some time and effort, I now do this for every book that I read.
To a certain extend, doing what I love needs me to not care about what other people think about it. We tend to compare each other, reflect and monitor ourselves in what we do and how we do it. We want to conform to the expectations of the people around us and society in general because that is in the nature of human beings. But one needs to realize at some point that this life is the only one we have and one should fill it relentlessly with what one truly enjoys, no matter what it is. Therefore, it cannot bother me too much what most people secretly think about what I do. I still have these small worries whenever I make a post on Instagram, publish a blog post like this one, or prioritize a reading session over a social getaway, but I am getting better at suppressing these thoughts. This indifference about certain opinions has given me the exact courage to build and share my website, pursue those studies, have a public Instagram profile, share my thoughts on different platforms, etc. That does not mean that I don't appreciate genuine feedback on what I do and think, but it means that I am trying to not overthink about strangers evaluating my work and thoughts. In most cases, the truth is also that much fewer people actually care about me than I would like to think (which is not because I think I am that important, but it lies in human nature and is similar for most of us). It helps to adopt the thinking of John Maxwell who says:
"You cannot overestimate the unimportance of practically everything".
Also, no one is going to evaluate what I do and think more critically than myself. Before being successful in anything, you need to start from scratch. And starting from scratch demands courage and resilience. As long as you think your path is the right one and the one that provides you the most joy, it helps to confront other people's opinions with a certain amount of detachment.
Have you ever been in a situation where a person asks you something and you felt like you did not have the right skills to accomplish the job at that point? Did you ever not apply for a job because you thought: "My skills are certainly not at the right level yet"? I am a firm believer in learning by doing, and saying yes before you think you can, puts you in the ultimate learning situations. You put yourself so much under pressure that you have no other choice than to rapidly learn what it needs to get the job done. This mindset will give you access to reaching further, developing faster, and learning most effectively. As of my personal experience, this attitude has granted me some of the accomplishments I am most proud of. It is the way of thinking that has made me apply for the job at Microsoft that I ultimately got, it has fuelled the initiative to get one of my biggest photography jobs, and it has also enabled me to launch this website. In all of these situations, a seemingly unattainable goal has been in front of me, but by pushing through and learning new skills at a rapid rate, I have been able to surmount them. Say yes, before you think you can!
Charles Duhigg. The Power of Habit. 2012.
James Clear. Atomic Habits. 2018.
Ali Abdaal. The Second Brain - A Life-Changing Productivity System. 2020.