The value of habit and simplicity

About a week ago, my family spent our New Year’s Eve breakfast overlooking the seagulls surfing the waves, the pastries disappearing from the glass table, and the year that had just sailed by.

For my mom and dad, the theme of 2016 was change: turning 60, closing my dad’s private practice, graduating all the kids from high school, selling our house. For my sister it was planting seeds: a new job, new programs, new friends.

For me, one of the year’s unassuming themes was around systems and simplicity.

As Aristotle famously said: We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act, but a habit. And so, in the hope of becoming a slightly better person, my goal this past year was to build more routine and habit into my life. Or, in other words, to create systems and simplicity, which involved a number of small goals:

  • Developing a detailed hour-by-hour schedule the night before each day
  • Waking up at a certain time and cycling every day
  • Saying my prayers 3x a day
  • Reading one book a week
  • Writing two blog posts a month
  • Calling my family every Monday morning
  • And my personal favorite, going to the movies once a week

Fortunately, I was able to make progress towards most of these goals — with some exceptions (e.g., when I was traveling or injured) — and believe that I am learning some valuable lessons about the power of habits and simplicity.

Measurement

At the beginning of 2016, I had a chance to visit Seth Godin to discuss Amal Academy, and he pushed me to develop very clear goals in order to evaluate whether or not we were successful. Without these goals, he argued, we would not be able to measure our effectiveness.

While we worked on this professionally with Amal, I realize now that this was one of the unexpected benefits of daily habits in my personal life: it provided me a way to measure my day/week. Was I able to pray 3x today, to wake up on time and cycle, to read a book this week, to write a blog post?

It might seem formulaic, but by identifying what success looks like, we actually give ourself a chance to appreciate it if it’s achieved (and the chance to adjust if it’s not).

Stability

Another observation we’ve made at Amal is around the importance of developing systems in order to make our team and venture more efficient and effective. Given that startups entail an ocean of moving parts, it’s powerful to develop systems around the parts that you can control (e.g., to develop a system for hiring, onboarding, etc).

In the same way, our lives are complicated and have so many moving and unexpected components. In a way, each of our lives is like a startup venture, making it easy to feel like we’re sinking. For this reason, developing habits helps create some stability, by developing systems that allow our day to be more consistent and by taking control of the parts that we can control.

Fewer decisions

And a related point is that having routines helps reduce the number of decisions that we have to make each day. Each decision takes time and involves critical reasoning, and if we can free up this capacity then we can invest that into something else.

Much has been written about people like Barack Obama and Mark Zuckerberg, who choose to wear the same thing each day so that it’s one less thing they have to spend time / brain power on. And the same goes for other practices throughout the day: life is complicated and full of incredible opportunities. And the more we can simplify our day through habits and routines, the more effective we can be in trying to realize these incredible opportunities when they present themselves.

And so, as boring as it might sound, one of the highlights for me in 2016 was the moments that weren’t highlights: The white space that allowed for the highlights to rainbow. And the quietness to applaud them if/when they did.

“it is common to take a dog for a walk, it is less common to take a dream for a walk” || @amalacademy + @understory cofounder | nature novel in progress

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