What I really think about habits

Most self-improvement habits are masks; they let you be productive while hiding (and often reinforcing) a deeper problem. Instead, look for places you can make short term but persistent interventions. Fix the problems, then live your life without a schedule.

Each problem you fix will compound on top of the rest and transform your life for the better.

As one example: Want to understand the world around you? Don’t read an hour a day unless you have already fixed your energy levels, short term memory and peace of mind.

Want to know more?

This blog post is part of a series I am making called Reading For The Aspirational Self. Don’t think of this as book summaries – I’m not doing that. Instead, I’m drawing out specific lessons that I find particularly interesting. And which I think could act, together, to help people who share my aspirations. If you, too, want to be present, family-centric, intrinsically motivated and polymathic, I can help.

  • The most distilled version of what I’m offering is a free mailing list designed for learning, “Think On Thursday” – each e-mail will include a lesson designed around the content. Click here for some information on that.
  • The series is also on YouTube in the form of 7-12 minute videos. Here’s the channel link – the video and transcript are below.
  • I’m tweeting excerpts from the videos, as well as some of the story of this project, how we’re doing it, and where it is going, on Twitter. @DaveCBeck

Starboard reflections,


This week’s video



So, I was asked this question and I realized that I don’t know any or have any reading on the idea of non-related or unrelated compound gains? I don’t know of any reading that has inspired my aversion to habits. Which is interesting because I’ve been kind of disentangling why I think what I think in a lot of other areas, so going to try and do this and work out where it’s come from at some point too. 

The use of habits for compounding gains is a really popular thing nowadays in the self-improvement world, particularly on Twitter, the idea being that if you identify key habits and you make them easy for yourself and there are loads of ways of doing this: you can make steady progress on a percentage basis and get a couple of percent better every year or every month or every week. And if you do that, you’ll improve by multiples over time. So it’s based on the kind of investment philosophy of compounding gains.  It’s really popular. It works for some people, and I’m not saying it’s bad.  

I’m just saying for me, it’s a weird way of living because the aspiration, the end result for me, isn’t a world full of habits and a world full of routines at all. It’s a world full of freedom in which I am all of  the same things that the people who want to build their habits want to be, maybe with less stress or money but, you know, health and energy and love and all of the things that you can build habits around. I share those aspirations. It’s just that I don’t want to end up in a world where the habits are what keeps me there.  

What I want to do is identify places where I can make short term, but persistent interventions and that’s really, the key is short term, but persistent intervention. So things you can do for a short amount of time that break through a barrier and enable you to live in a slightly different way afterwards. 

And that then persist and that you might have to revisit every now and then, but they don’t have to be a daily routine. 

So if you want more peace in your life, a common habit that people build is to meditate. They might meditate everyday after lunch or after breakfast or before they go to bed or whatever. That’s fine. That’s cool. Meditation really does work for a lot of people. But my question is why aren’t you at peace in the first place? And there is something else there, whether it’s a kind of absence of free time in your life that you’re just resting and allowing your brain to do its own resetting duty, or whether it’s an absence of something else or a surfeit to things to do in a surfeit of stress, which is one of the most common problems that lead to people to feel ill at peace with themselves. 

The same goes with health. So yes, exercising every day or doing your high intensity workouts or lifting weights is all good. It all builds your body. It’s all great. But why do you need to program that in? Why are you not just naturally energetic and full of energy and enjoying yourself and exercising? Again, it’s a lack of time. It’s the way that you curate your environment around you, doesn’t lend itself to exercise, particularly for people who live in urban environments. It’s tough. If I feel energetic and want to exercise, I go jump in the sea and chase my seven year old around for a little while. 

Or we go and do something else that’s both fun and energetic and inspired by play and momentary enjoyment rather than inspired by a habit and a routine. And for me, that’s a better way of living.  

Another common one for the people that I know is learning and reading in particular. the habit form might take reading a book every day for X amount of time for half an hour, an hour. However much time you can dictate from other activities due to your reading and your learning. And the aspiration behind that is to understand the world better, be able to live a better life for yourself, know yourself better in some cases, and to be more intelligent. 

And for nearly everybody. It’s not the quantity of information or even the quality of information that they’ve consumed that is the actual bottleneck in their understanding of the world. It’s either a lack of giving their brain free time to allow the kind of subconscious processing to take place that embeds memories and builds those connections. 

Or it’s enabled by memory. So people short-term memory now doesn’t allow them to hold enough different ideas in their brain and think with those ideas and play with those ideas to understand that anything, really. The lack of short-term memory is a real problem for many people. The studies have shown what used to be seven plus or minus one, and that the number of chunks. So if memory that you can hold in your brain at any one time has decreased over time and is now around four. For those people, even, maybe even three for some of the younger generation and solving that, which is solvable. 

These are all genetic ranges you can move along by training and those gains are persistent as well. Solving those problems, will do far more for how you understand the world than reading an hour every day. And it leaves you the free time to do what you want to do with your life.  

And each of those bottlenecks can compound with each other. So, so when you, solve your working memory issue, you can understand an awful lot of things better by thinking about them. When you give yourself more free time, again, that compounds on top of the working memory to give yourself a transformative understanding of the world. 

The key really for me, is to find where you can make those short-term, but persistent interventions in your life. And there are plenty of them for nearly everybody. I know, certainly everybody I’ve ever coached has had a lot of areas that they can make those short-term changes. Habits help with those short term changes. I’m not saying never use habits. I’m saying that they should be used for short term interventions rather than as a way of life or a way of being filling your day with habits isn’t an end result I want to have.  

So if you’ve listened this far, and you can think of some reading that I might have been inspired by in any of that. And I know the kind of subdivided reading, if I drill down far enough onto any of those issues, I can tell you what I’ve read, that’s inspired it, but the synoptic view, I have no idea where that came from. 

So if, if you do tell me.  If you found it interesting, tell me. Comments or messages or whatever would be great.