Successful Habits

J. Paul Getty, the founder of Getty Oil Company and by the late 1950s widely regarded as the world’s richest man, said, “The individual who wants to reach the top in business must appreciate the might and force of habit. He must be quick to break those habits that can break him and hasten to adopt those practices that will become the habits that help him achieve the success he desires.”

Good habits are the building blocks of success. Unfortunately, bad habits are the pitfalls of failure.

Psychologists tell us that up to 90% of our behavior is habitual. From the time we get up in the morning until the time we retire at night, there are hundreds of things we do the same way every day. These include the time we get up, the morning rituals of shaving, showering, brushing teeth, and getting ready for the day, the route we drive to work, what we do when we get to work from organizing our desk, to making out our to-do list, to the projects or tasks we perform. Over the years, we develop a set of firmly entrenched habits that affect our work, income, health, and relationships.

The good news is that habits help free up our mind while our body is on automatic. For example, we can plan our day while we shower. We can rehearse our presentation on the drive to a client. We can list the chores we want to tackle when we get home while on a zoom call. We can open the house door, turn on the light, and put away our house keys without even thinking about it because we have implemented the same routine a hundred times.

The bad news is that some habits produce self-defeating patterns and prevent us from living life to the fullest. Why? Because a habit is a routine or behavior performed regularly—and, in many cases, becomes automatic.

In his book Atomic Habits, James Clear wrote, “The quality of our lives often depends on the quality of our habits. With the same habits, you’ll end up with the same results. But with better habits, anything is possible (p. 7).” Clear explained, “Habits are the compound interest of self-improvement. The same way that money multiplies through compound interest, the effects of your habits multiply as you repeat them (p. 16).” Clear revealed, “Success is the product of daily habits—not once-in-a-lifetime transformation (p.18).” Then, Clear uncovered this profound truth, “It doesn’t matter how successful or unsuccessful you are right now. What matters is whether your habits are putting you on the path toward success. You should be more concerned with your current trajectory than with your current results (p. 18).”

A familiar quote states, “All organizations are perfectly designed to get the results they get.” The same reality is true for individuals, “Your present routine is perfectly designed to get the results you currently get.” Whatever habits you currently have established are producing your current level of results. Therefore, if you want to create higher levels of success, you need to adopt practices that will become habits that will propel you to the success you want to achieve. This practice will include breaking bad habits (not returning phone calls, staying up late watching television, making sarcastic comments, eating fast food every day, smoking, being late for appointments, spending more than you earn) and replacing them with more productive habits (returning phone calls within 24 hours, getting 8 hours of sleep each night, reading for an hour a day, exercising four times a week, eating healthy food, being on time, and saving 10% of your income).

Remember, good habits are the building blocks of success. Robert Ringer, the author of Million Dollar Habits, explained, “Success is a matter of understanding and religiously practicing specific, simple habits that always lead to success.” Why? Your habits determine your outcomes. The habits you develop from this day forward will ultimately determine how your future unfolds.

Quite literally, you are your habits. So how do you develop habits that will yield the outcomes you desire?

James Clear identified three layers of behavior change. He displayed the following diagram:

The outer layer is changing your outcomes. This layer is concerned with changing your results: returning phone calls within 24 hours, getting 8 hours of sleep each night, reading for an hour a day, exercising four times a week, eating healthy food, being on time, and saving 10% of your income. Most personal goals are associated with this level of change. Outcomes are about what you get.

The middle layer is changing your process. This layer is concerned with changing your habits and systems: implementing a new morning routine that includes exercise, meditation, and task setting; a work routine that focuses on getting jobs done, limits procrastination, decluttering your desk for better workflow, and making plans for the next day; and an evening routine that allows more time with family, quietness, reading, and getting to bed on time. Most of the habits you build are associated with this level. Processes are about what you do.

The inner and deepest layer is changing your identity. This level is concerned with changing personal beliefs that include your worldview, self-image, judgments about yourself and others, and self-talk. Most of the opinions, assumptions, and biases you hold are associated with this level. Identity is about what you believe.

When we talk about breaking old habits and making new habits, most of us focus on what we want to achieve. We start with the outer layer. We emphasize results by setting goals such as reading 12 books next year or weighing a certain weight by the end of the year. This action leads to outcome-based habits. Clear suggested an alternative to outcome-based habits, which is to build identity-based habits. In other words, instead of starting with the outer layer of outcomes and moving inward on the chart, begin with identity and move outward by focusing on who we wish to become.

It’s a two-step process.

  1. Begin with who you are, not what you want to do.

When I was in the eighth grade, I asked for a typewriter for Christmas. Under the tree that year, I found a mint green Royal 79101t Classic Manual Typewriter. I wanted to write. I began the great American sports novel. I confess that I did not get very far with that project. I was fourteen, and baseball, basketball, and football edged out that pursuit. Fast forward sixteen years later, I was in my first pastorate. I was writing sermons weekly. I became a writer. I remembered the mint green Royal 79101t Classic Manual Typewriter. The thought hit me: Was there a possibility to reuse the sermon material into an article? I began reading books on freelance writing, and one constant refrain was that “Writers write.” I began to set aside time each week to write. I became a writer. Who I was–a writer–led to the habit of writing which yielded the results of over 1,200 articles, six books, and contribution to over ten other books.

My initial goal was to write an article or author a book when I first needed to become a writer. Writers write. My focus changed. I realized that who I am is more important than what I did. I became a writer that writes, and in time, saw articles and books published.

Actual behavior change is identity change. You might start a habit because of motivation, but the only reason you’ll stick with one is that it becomes part of your identity.

For example, the goal is not to read a book; the goal is to become a reader. Readers read, and in time they read a lot of books. I watched a YouTube video of a young man who didn’t like to read but set a goal to read a book a week. At first, he said that he would decide on a book, count the number of pages, divide it by seven, and read the required number of pages each day to reach his goal. At first, it was hard and laborious, but over time his whole countenance changed. In time, he said, “I became a reader. I enjoyed learning and the experiences that came from reading. The goal of reading 52 books a year was easy.”

The goal is not to run a marathon; the goal is to become a runner. Most runners don’t start out enjoying running. It is, after all, a solitary, lonely sport. But in time, those that stay at it become runners. Distant running becomes part of who they are. They are runners.

The same identity works corporately, too. Let’s take a college football team, for example. The goal is not to win championships; the goal is to become winners. I happened to catch part of ESPN’s “Saturdays in the South: A History of SEC Football” recently. As part of this episode, they featured Bear Bryant, the successful Alabama coach. They summarized Alabama’s success under Bryant by saying that they won year in and year out, but there were no celebrations, no banquets, no parades because they expected to win. They were winners.

Your behaviors are usually a reflection of your identity. What you do is an indication of the type of person you believe that you are. So–

–Decide the type of person you want to be.

Imagine two people resisting a cigarette. When offered a smoke, the first person says, “No, thanks. I’m trying to quit.” It sounds like a reasonable response, but this person still believes they are a smoker trying to be something else. They are hoping their behavior will change while carrying around the same beliefs.

The second person declines by saying, “No, thanks. I’m not a smoker.” It’s a small difference, but this statement signals a shift in identity. Smoking was a part of their former life, not their current one. They no longer identify as someone who smokes.

This identity goes more in-depth than I’m not a smoker, a runner, or a writer. My identity was drilled into me by my parents. “You are part of our family. You bear our name. Consequently, you act a certain way. You don’t do certain activities because it would damage our name. You perform certain duties because that’s who we are.”

Christ-followers’ identity is rooted in their relationship with God. Following Jesus’s lead, adhering to biblical principles, obeying God’s law determines practices, activities, behaviors, and lifestyle.

–Prove it to yourself with small wins.

Once you have a handle on the type of person you want to be, you can begin taking small steps to reinforce your desired identity. I read of a person who lost over 100 pounds by asking herself, “What would a healthy person do?” All-day long, she would use this question as a guide. Would a healthy person walk or take a cab? Would a healthy person order a burrito or a salad? She figured if she acted like a healthy person long enough, eventually she would become that person. Her small wins proved useful. She lost weight.  

Ben Hunt-Davis was the captain of Great Britain’s male Rowing Eight team. Previously, the teams had consistently failed to win a medal or even make it into major competitions’ finals. So, in 1998, Ben Hut-Davis, the captain, came up with a simple rule: to every activity that the team thought about doing, they would ask, “Will it make the boat go faster?” They asked the same question with every action they took. When the team dreaded the 20km morning run, they asked each other, “Will it make the boat go faster?” When someone thought about going to the pub, others asked, “Will it make the boat go faster?” Their focus became purely about performance, the results they hoped would follow. Their small wins proved successful. At the Sydney Olympics in 2000, the team became the first British team to win Olympic gold since 1912.

Question: Are you becoming the type of person you want to become? The first step is not what or how, but who.

2. Systems are more important than goals.

Prevailing wisdom claims that the best way to achieve what we want in life—getting into better shape, building a successful business, relaxing more and worrying less, spending more time with friends and family—is to set specific, actionable goals. Consequently, many people make New Year’s resolutions. They set goals.

For years I set goals. I succeeded at a few, but I failed at a lot of them.

Two reasons became apparent in my goal setting.

One, too many of my goals were outside of my control. Too often, I set goals that were dependent on other people’s responses. It’s like the salesperson whose goal is to close $1 million in sales. It’s a noble and worthy goal but entirely outside the salesperson’s control.

Two, I eventually realized that my results had little to do with the goals I set and nearly everything to do with the systems I followed.

What’s the difference between systems and goals? Goals are the results you want to achieve. Systems are about the processes that lead to those results. Note the middle layer in the diagram. Without processes and systems, our goals are aspirational at best.

Every person wants to be in better health, weigh an ideal weight, achieve the right blood pressure, and all other health indicators. Most college football team sets a goal to win the national championship. Every entrepreneur wants to build a million-dollar business. All those are noble and worthy. Nothing wrong with any of them. They provide direction and focus. They are what we want to achieve.

Unfortunately, without the proper systems and processes in place, those goals are doomed to go unrealized.

Question: If you completely ignored your goals and focused only on your system, would you still succeed? Consider this: if you were a basketball coach and ignored your goal to win a championship and focused only on what your team does at practice each day, would you still get results? I think you would. If you were a salesperson and ignored your goal to close a million dollars in sales and focused only on making 50 calls a day, would you still get the results? I think you would.

Goals are useful for setting direction, but systems are best for making progress. The process will determine your progress. In the words of three-time Super Bowl winner Bill Walsh, “The score will take care of itself.” If you want better results, then forget about the goals, focus on your systems instead.

If you are having trouble changing your habits, the problem isn’t you. The problem is your system. Bad habits repeat themselves repeatedly, not because you don’t want to change, but because you have the wrong system for change.

In summary, to develop successful habits begin with who you are—your identity. So focus on who you want to become. Then, determine the right questions to ask that will afford you the small wins along the way. Then, develop the suitable systems and processes on what to do that will get you where you want to be.

James Clear explained: “The real reason habits matter is not because they can get you better results (although they can do that), but because they can change your beliefs about yourself.”

About Rick Ezell

I am a husband, father, pastor, and writer. This blog is about shaping character, transforming church, and impacting culture. I believe that if one defines their moments then their moments will determine their character and their character will influence their world. I write on personal development, church leadership, and our changing culture. I also write about the resources I am developing and the books I am writing. My goal is to create challenging, relevant, and inspiring content that will help you be a better person, the church be a better parish, and the world a better place. If you are interested in those things, this blog is for you. I have served the church my entire career as a student minister and senior pastor. I studied at Samford University, Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, and Northern Baptist Theological Seminary (eventually I will get it). I have written eight books. My most recent ones are Chapter 13: The Excellence of Love and Soul Therapy: The Healing Words of Psalm 23. Both are available as eBooks. I have written over 1000 articles for various local, regional, and national publications. I have been married to Cindy for thirty-three years. We have one wonderful daughter. We live in Greenville, SC. In my free time, I enjoy writing, reading, running, tennis, and golf. You can contact me via email or follow me on Twitter or Facebook. This is my personal blog. The opinions I express here do not necessarily represent those of my employer. The information I provide is on an as-is basis. I make no representations as to accuracy, completeness, correctness, suitability, or validity of any information on this blog and will not be liable for any errors, omissions, or delays in this information or any losses, injuries, or damages arising from its use.
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