Author’s Note: I’m currently in the process of migrating old blog posts to this new system. That may mean some links, syntax highlighting, and other details are broken or missing temporarily. Sorry for the inconvenience!

I’m a big fan of Medium. It’s a place where I can read long thoughts that people have clearly put some effort into. It reminds me of the good old days of blogs and RSS and Google Reader and the like. We don’t have as much content like that anymore. If you spend more than ten seconds or so reading an article, it’s more valuable to the publisher for you to click another page rather than finish reading, so they can deliver more ad impressions. Shorter-form, viral, sharable content is preferred. Better yet, video, since those ads are more effective.

This post isn’t about that. So I read this article on Medium called Stop Imidating the Habits of Successful People: It’s Killing You

Morning People

When do you get up in the morning? My own answer varies wildly. Sometimes I’m up at 1am. Other times I sleep in until the late afternoon. I’m not good at consistency, but that’s beside the point. When should you get up in the morning?

I think most of us have this sense that we should get up earlier. That if we had a wonderful morning routine of coffee, exercise, meditation, contemplation, things would magically fall into place. Because reading articles about “successful people” lead us to think that maybe that’s a keystone habit.

But the article has some unkind words to say about this kind of thinking:

For instance, take waking up early. That’s always part of the lists of habits. But waking up is not a skill that does something. When you try to imitate a rich person who wakes up early, will you become rich by waking up early?

Shoot. Darius is right! What am I doing with that time? Is there some inherent assumption there that simply shifting my waking hours up a bit will cause things to fall into my lap? If I get up an hour earlier and spend it playing video games, will that make everything in my life fall into place?

…maybe, actually. An hour in the morning that’s uninterrupted? Just calm and relaxing, without feeling like you’re cheating the stuff that you’re supposed to be doing? But no, that’s not the point we’re trying to make here!

What is it we can do with that time to use it productively? And what is that productivity driving us toward? Making more money? Creative success? Being a better spouse or parent or…what, really? Undirected habits are a great way to find the optimal solution to the wrong problem.

So, start with why?

The obvious solution here is to take a top-down approach. Our habits should be tactics to support our strategies to support our overall goals. Right? The theory of trickle-down motivation.

I want to live to reach eighty, therefore:

  • I want to ensure the planet is still around then, therefore:
    • I want to discourage a nuclear arms race, therefore:
      • …okay, this is a trickier one, let’s back up
  • I want to stay relatively fit, therefore:
    • I want to exercise (wait, but I don’t actually), therefore:
      • I want to do…I dunno, some jumping jacks?
    • I want to eat healthy, therefore:
      • Okay, this exercise is getting too depressing (I knew I hated exercise)

Also, I’ve already cheated here. Living to reach eighty isn’t a goal. It’s a means of trying to achieve other things. Like spending time with family, or writing, or seeing the world, or reading All The Books!

What’s the real goal? Just to be happy? Isn’t that a little abstract? How do you break that down? How do you know the right steps to get there? Especially when you’re a beginner. What are the steps to becoming a phenomenal flamenco dancer? I dunno, I’d probably have to start flamenco dancing first.

Or we can cheat

Or I could ask a flamenco dancer (I’d also ask them whether flamenco should be capitalized. I’m truly a beginner on this subject). In the same way that we try and cultivate the behaviors that we see in the people who seem to be successful (that word “seem” is important). Because they might be on to something. And maybe blindly following a habit for a while is better than sitting in one spot.

So we write for an hour every day, or we try and get up a little bit earlier. Not because we really have any good reason to think that it will work, but because there are really two potential outcomes:

  • It was the right call, we’ll cease to be beginners, and get closer to our goals.

or

  • It was the wrong call, and we’ll cease to be beginners, but discover that this habit wasn’t part of our goal.

If you know what you want, and you know the steps to get there, then absolutely go for it.

But if you’re not sure. If you don’t know how to get there. If you don’t even really know where there is. Try something. Start marching in a direction. Jog, write, wake up, dance the flamenco for a while. Maybe it’ll stick.

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