I recently recommended several books on health and longevity (steering clear of Covid, which is about as loaded a topic as a smoking grenade with the pin missing).
But working through my struggles to stay on track with healthy practices, I’ve realized that there’s ONE thing more important than any other for long-term success, regardless of your goal.
I’ve referred to it before as moving the proverbial needle. If you don’t have a reliable workflow for achieving your chosen goals at need, it won’t matter how worthy, awesome, and world-changing your goals are, or how energetically you research, debate, and defend them.
Without the ability to make any goal of yours a reality, it’s all for nothing. All that sound and fury, which you can convince yourself counts as real work, nets you nothing if you can’t deliver.
The One Ring To Bind Them
If you had to limit yourself to ONE nuclear-powered Swiss Army Knife to take you across the finish line for any of your health and fitness goals, what would it be?
I would argue, it should be a working understanding of habit science.
How to take any goal that requires consistent, regular effort, plug it into a simple formula, and create a lasting, automatic habit. Or its converse: identifying a bad habit that you’ve been unable to shake, deconstructing it, and making it disappear.
1) You get bad news, suffer an unexpected turn of events, or just feel fried at the end of a long week. You know you should be eating clean (AIP, Paleo, gluten-free, etc.) but out comes the pizza, the curry rice, the ice cream — whatever your comfort food of choice at times like these. That’s a no bueno habit it might be helpful to unwind.
2) You’ve created a great mini-workout for when you’re short on time, 3 minutes tops, and all you need is some floor space. It accounts for your current level of fitness, your limitations, and what abilities you’d like to develop. It should be doable daily, but you realize you’ve only done it twice in the past 3 weeks. That would be a great habit to dial in regularly, without having to talk yourself into it every day.
3) There’s a fitness class you’ve found that really challenges you in all the right ways, and the schedule meshes nicely with your availability. 100% of the time you feel better after going, but you start finding excuses not to attend, as if you’re trying to fall back into your old ways. Creating a recurring habit to get past this sticking point would be extremely beneficial, before this new endeavor joins the others you’ve given up after a few months.
At a crossroads, beneficial health and fitness decisions can be one-offs. Get this vaccination, proceed with that surgery, take these pills for a week. Working up to the decision can take time, but once you make the decision, the thing is done.
But most health and fitness gains require consistent, prolonged effort. Adjusting your nutrition as you learn about your body and its demands. Exercising to build flexibility, metabolically active muscle, and brain health. Meditating and breathing to neutralize stress and regain control of your emotional reactions. Sleeping 8 hrs nightly to prevent dementia and sharpen your mind. Recognizing when you’re about to have the same argument again with a family member, pausing to recognize why, and choosing a more constructive outcome.
These activities yield their most dramatic benefits over time, and you get better at them with repeated practice.
The 8th Wonder Of The World
Being able to automate these activities into reliably repeating habits is the most powerful tool in your toolkit. If you could take any health goal you could imagine and make it a reality within, say, 3 months, would that be valuable? Getting back to your college weight, weaning off chronic medications, making aches and pains disappear, sharpening your focus and energy…even if it took 12 months, being able to make any goal happen at will would pretty much be a superpower.
Habit science puts that within your reach.
James Clear explains why in his book, Atomic Habits: when you create a repeating habit, you are basically applying compound interest — The Eighth Wonder Of The World — to your improvement efforts. You perform a habit that improves yourself a bit, and when you next repeat it, you’re improving not the old you, but the slightly better you so the resulting improved you is more better. Each and every cycle, you’re building on the newly improved version of you; you’re not adding improvements, you’re adding improved improvements, basically multiplying your gains.
You may have heard about the “1% better every day” example. If you improve yourself by just 1% every day, at the end of a year, you won’t be 3.65 times farther along (365% farther), you’ll be 37.78 times farther along — over 1000% past where you started.
This is why students who regularly attend martial arts classes look about the same one month after starting, a little better 3 months later, almost unrecognizable a year later, and preparing for their black belts 4-5 years later (depending on the martial art, I know, but still).
If a goal can be achieved with consistency and time, habit science puts the formula for success within your reach. (This is even more true when success depends on competition with others: most others will not stay the course, making habit creation the deciding factor in simply outlasting most of the competition. Another topic for another day.)
You Have Before You A Magic Lamp
There are many titles that clarify the process of habit creation: Clear’s Atomic Habits, Fogg’s Tiny Habits, and Duhigg and Chamberlain’s The Power Of Habit, among others. Pick a couple that resonate, and get the process down.
Then unleash heck.
Start improving a keystone area of your life — nutrition, exercise, investing, learning, inner work — and watch your improvements accelerate improvements.
Habit science isn’t the answer to all of society’s ills, or even your own. You still have to pick the goals that are right for you — to have your ladder up against the proverbial right building — and you still have to grind out the actual work.
But it’s about as meta as it gets. With this tool, your chosen goals become possible. Without it, they’re just talk.