In business school, I became obsessed with adopting habits. I trusted the idea that small things done consistently add up to big things in the long run.
Like millions of others interested in self-improvement, I read Stephen Covey’s The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, one of the bestselling books of all time. It gave me some good tools to start with, but it makes a flawed assumption — that there exists an ideal set of habits for success, one that is finite, timeless, and exactly the same for everyone. What I learned through aggressive experimentation — waking up at 5 a.m. for three straight months, quitting caffeine for 100 days and alcohol for two years, taking cold showers, and walking 10,000 steps a day for a year — is that this is simply untrue.
Habits have served me well. I’ve published more than a thousand pieces of writing which have been read by millions of people. I’ve found a line of work I’m proud to be in, and I make a six-figure income with full control over my time and projects. But the big lesson I’ve learned is that success has little to do with any particular set of habits and everything to do with your ability to change your habits when you need to. Successful people aren’t just highly effective, they’re highly adaptable. Instead of one-and-done solutions, they adopt meta-habits — habits that help them manage their habits.
Here are four ways to use meta-habits to manage your growth.
Continuously monitor your habits
By keeping stock of your habits, you can double down on what works and abandon what doesn’t. To start, simply write down all your existing routines in a journal or an app. I use coach.me. Then start tracking your goals. If you reach or move closer to a goal, ask yourself whether your habits helped you do so — and then consider intensifying the habit. Has taking a 15-minute walk every afternoon helped spark creative ideas? If so, you might want up your daily walk to 45 minutes. On the flip side, if you’re feeling stuck, ask yourself if a habit could be to blame. Maybe waking up at 4:45 a.m. hasn’t helped you get more writing done and has instead just made you tired. Make changes as you go.
Find synergies among your habits
In the book Atomic Habits, author James Clear explains that one of the best ways to build a new habit is to identify one of your current habits and tack the new behavior on top of it. He calls these “habit stacks.” For instance, if you’ve had a daily running habit for a long time, doing your most important work task for the day right before or after your run can help you be more productive. Similarly, you could tie a “bad habit” to a good one so that it makes the indulgence worthwhile, like only eating chocolate as a workout reward.
Break habits into smaller pieces
Maybe you tried to go from never working out to hitting the gym every single day. If you haven’t been following through, you’re probably feeling defeated. But the problem could be that your new habit is too big. Try slicing it into something smaller — tiny, even. You might create a habit of doing just one pushup a day. Any time you exceed your goal, which will probably be often, you’ll feel encouraged and want to keep going. Taking action reinforces the behavior.
Practice self-awareness around your habits
When it comes to habits, the sooner you catch yourself repeating a bad one or failing to follow through on a good one, the easier it will be to address the underlying issue. Mindfulness, the practice of observing your thoughts and behaviors in real time without passing judgment, can help you with this. Use meditation or other exercises to enter a state of self-awareness. Then whenever your habits seem a bit off, simply notice what’s going on in your mind, and get curious. One thing I’ve seen successful people do is forgive themselves quickly when it comes to habits. Since habits are just tools, they don’t let any one affect their identity and happiness. They celebrate their wins, process their failures, and change course as necessary.
Niklas Göke writes for dreamers, doers, and unbroken optimists. His writing on self-improvement, philosophy, and productivity has appeared on Business Insider, CNBC, Fast Company, and many more publications. He is also the owner of Four Minute Books, where he’s published over 500 non-fiction book summaries to date.