In my previous blog post I looked at three bad habits everyone should break or rather three dangerous forms of negative thinking that are detrimental to personal growth. Negative thinking, in all its forms, is the ultimate bad habit – a habit that you must persevere to break if you want to prosper. To recap, I argued firstly against underestimating yourself, secondly against underestimating other people and finally against underestimating the impact you can have on others. But today I want to look at some healthy habits – habits that are good for our emotional and physical well-being. These habits have helped many successful people get where they are.
Get into the habit of setting goals
People who excel in sport, business or politics do not succeed by accident or luck. Psychologists who study successful people consistently find that over-achievers set goals. When it comes to setting goals you need to first look at the big picture – what is your dream, what do you want to achieve in your life? Next, try and break down your goal into major targets that you can meet over months or within a year, then break those targets down into smaller and smaller goals. You want to set measureable and attainable goals and give yourself a timetable to achieve these ‘mini-goals’. Steve Jobs once told his employees at Apple to focus on just a few priorities. He wasn’t telling them to think small, but rather to have a couple of immediate, attainable goals – not just be scattered across a dozen projects. Too often people feel that they aren’t achieving anything in life because they have not set themselves goals. What is your big picture goal, and what is your goal for this year, this month and this week? Immediate, achievable goals define your life plan. Benjamin Franklin began every day by asking himself the question, “What good shall I do today?”
What good will you do today?
You know that saying, “You can’t teach an old dog new tricks”, well, it’s not only wrong, but possibly dangerous. You are never too old to learn something new. In fact I recently read that learning a second language can help prevent the onset of dementia. A study by Edinburgh University found that having more than one language delays the onset of dementia by five to six years. It appears that switching between two languages is a form of brain training.
But psychologists who’ve looked at the habits of successful people found these people are constantly learning new skills, training their brains and seeking to improve their education. Often this can be accomplished through reading. Warren Buffet once said, “Read 500 pages every day. That’s how knowledge works. It builds up, like compound interest. All of you can do it, but I guarantee not many of you will do it.” Bill Gates reads about 50 books every year and Mark Zuckerberg vowed to read a book every two weeks in 2015. I would suggest devoting at least half an hour a day to reading, in the interests of self-improvement, brain training and continuing your education. Consider looking at the biography of a public figure you admire or buy a new history or self-improvement book. But just keep reading and learning!
Exercise for many successful people is the answer to pushing themselves further mentally and physically. Working-out makes you happier and healthier. Regular exercise is among the most important habits you can develop to change your life. Anna Wintour, the Vogue editor, plays tennis for one hour every day, Richard Branson kite surfs and former US President Barack Obama does a daily 45 minute workout routine of weights and cardio. Bill Gates spends an hour every morning on the treadmill, but he watches the courses from the Teaching Company while doing so! Ursula Burns, Xerox’s CEO, does a one-hour session with a personal trainer twice a week. Psychologists have found that exercise improves creativity and can increase human productivity by as much as two hours a day. So you could gain two extra hours of output by finding half an hour to exercise. According to those sums, we can’t afford not to exercise!
Many over-achievers like to sit quietly for at least 20 minutes every day. A period of quietness or personal meditation can cut stress, boast creativity, and improve general well-being. Arnold Schwarzenegger took up transcendental meditation in the 1970s. Oprah Winfrey claims that meditation changed her life. She says we all need to sit quietly with our thoughts to remember who we are. She believes that stillness is essential. Oprah once said, “The outside world is constantly trying to convince you you're not enough. But you don’t have to take the bait. Meditation, in whatever form you choose, helps you resist.” Solo activities can also act as a form of meditation or quietness. Meryl Streep likes to knit. George W Bush does oil painting. And don’t just set aside quiet time on week days. Weekends are also extremely busy, especially if you’re ferrying children to sporting events and catching up on housework and home repairs. It’s too easy to lose yourself in the chaos, so make sure you set aside some quiet time every day.
Give to others
Successful people believe in giving back to their communities. Bill Gates, Oprah Winfrey, Mark Zuckerberg, all donate to charity. If you don’t feel that you have the finances to donate, why not give your time. Volunteer to work for a local charity, like a soup kitchen or offer to take nursing home residents out on day trips, such as shopping. You will find that you are not only doing good for others, but enriching your own life. Richard Branson said, “It is amazing how focusing your mind on issues like health, poverty, conservation and climate change can help to re-energize your thinking in other areas.”
Get up early
While I think the saying “You can’t teach an old dog new tricks” is a furphy, I do believe that “the early bird catches the worm”. Benjamin Franklin and Charles Darwin were both early risers. Early risers generally have established sleep patterns and so are well rested. They rise early and get organised ahead of the crowd. Margaret Thatcher got up every morning at 5am. Serena Williams gets up at 6am to play tennis and she’s been doing that since she was in school. The key, of course to being an early riser, is to get enough sleep the night before. That means you need to avoid stimulants, like caffeine, alcohol or even screen time, just before bed.
No good habit is easy to master, just as it’s not easy to break bad habits, like negative thinking. Jerry Seinfeld has what he called the chain method. Every day he tried to implement a good habit, he’d put a cross on that day of his calendar. Soon he’d see chains of crosses running across the weeks. That is ultimately what you have to aim for – turning good intentions into habits you practice every day.