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Lifestyle Productivity

Understanding Habits and The 1% Rule

“We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act, but a habit.”

Aristotle (384 BC – 322 BC)

The other day I was thinking about how my life, and everyone else’s, is the accumulation of all the little moments of our lives. A lot of people I’ve talked to, including myself, are waiting for this imaginary future when their lives can finally start, but it’s a delusion. Our lives are happening right now and how we live in each moment decides what our lives actually are. So when I think about lifestyle design, or living my life by my own design the question arises –

How can I have the life I’ve always wanted?

Well if our lives are the sum of all the smaller moments, then living the life I’ve always wanted means to be the person that lives that ideal life in every moment. Everything I want to be, I ought to strive to be in every moment. If I do this, then over time I will have many small moments of me living out my ideal life and it will eventually be indistinguishable from my life as a whole. I can build my dream life one moment at at time. Thinking about this excited me, but at the same time terrified me.

How was I supposed to keep up with a demand that high?

How will I actually be able to build my dream life?

Through one decision at a time. Every moment I’m confronted with potential and I have a choice to turn it into something good or something bad. All I have to do is choose good every time right?

Yes, but the fact is I’m human, we’re all human, and for whatever reason we won’t always choose the good option.

So what can be do to make up for this peculiar quality?

Build habits. James Clear is a fantastic author who wrote the book, Atomic Habits, which outlines exactly that. Clear suggests that success (or how I like to think of it – ideal lifestyle design) is not a one time transaction, but the product of daily habits. In other words, we slowly build the kind of lives for ourselves one moment at a time. This phenomenon can work in our favor and take us towards our best life or can work to our detriment and create holes for ourselves indistinguishable from Hell.

This idea is relevant to self-talk and our thoughts as well. If we tell ourselves that we are capable and strong people often, then we are more likely to believe it. However, on the flipside, if we tell ourselves that we are weak and not good enough, then eventually we will believe that as well. I try to avoid saying things that make me weak, because my thought habits are pretty easily malleable.

I’ve seen this idea pop up in multiple places. In Atomic Habits, Clear states that habits are the compound interests of self-improvement and in The Slight Edge, Olson suggests that everything is curved in life especially the results from our seemingly tiny decisions.

The Slight Edge Two Life Path

Making the kinds of choices to propel our lives forward is a difficult thing to do and that’s where habits come into play. Building habits will help us stay on the upswing even when we don’t “feel like it.” Typically, making upswing choices takes a lot of willpower and if we are presented with a crossroads and have low willpower, then chances are we’ll make a choice that brings up on the downswing. Habits are our brain’s way of automating familiar and old tasks so it can focus on other areas and mastering new tasks. Put more simply, habits save cognitive load.

Life operates by design or by default, the best part is we get to decide.

The 1% Rule

“Small helpful or harmful behaviors and inputs tend to Accumulate over time, producing huge results. According to Lean Thinking by James P. Womack and Daniel T. Jones, Toyota’s approach is based on the Japanese concept of kaizen, which emphasizes the continual improvement of a system by eliminating muda (waste) via a lot of very small changes. Many small improvements, consistently implemented, inevitably produce huge results”

Josh Kaufman (1976 – )

The idea behind the 1% rule is pretty simple – 1% for better or worse seems insignificant in the moment, but over time it will add up to who we are on a day-to-day basis. Renowned authors James Clear, Josh Kaufman, and Jeff Olsen all noticed the 1% rule independently of each other and I think that means there’s something objectively true about the observation.

YouTuber and Productivity Guru Thomas Frank also brings up the 1% rule in this video!

Thomas Frank is super cool

I love the advice Thomas gives in the video to set a scheduled release date and aim to get 1% better every time. It doesn’t matter what domain you are improving, as long as it is consistently improved we can use time to our advantage rather than our detriment. I did this with music production, with every project I aimed to get better at making melodies, or mixing drums, or sampling and now that it’s been a few years, I can do all of those things fairly well. I also did this with blogging. I have experimented with a different aspect of blogging with every post and over time my blogging skills have improved. I can honestly say that using the 1% rule to approach any new skill is the most effective way to learn something without being let down by unrealistic expectations. Things like The Transition Curve are also things to keep in mind when we are trying to learn a new skill.

While this is a fantastic discovery for those of us who feel up to the challenge, but like I mentioned in my post Tracking vs. Loss Aversion, I talk about the importance of not just chasing a carrot, but also running from a stick. The stick in this case is the compound effect of getting 1% worse every day over time.

Based on a True Story

Getting 1% better for a year makes us about 38 times better than we were when we started, while getting 1% wrose for a year makes us 3% of what we were when we started. If we aren’t getting 1% better, than we’re getting 1% worse. It sounds like a wild accusation, but let me use science to explain.

Since we’re relatively large creatures, compared to subatomic particles, our bodies follow laws of conventional science (non-quantum laws), which means we adhere to the 2nd law of thermodynamics. The 2nd law states that entropy is always increasing. Entropy can be thought of as a measure of chaos or disorder. So the natural state of things is that they decay over time. Which means, if we aren’t actively trying to be 1% better, then we are truly getting 1% worse.

Progress is a Long Game

New habits don’t seem to make a difference until we reach a critical point. We expect to make linear progress, but our progress has more of a logarithmic behavior. James Clear calls this the expectancy curve. I talk more about the Expectancy Curve in my post The Valley of Disappointment.

The point when reality meets our expectations is known as the critical point

In order to notice the powerful outcomes, we have to stick with a skill longer than the valley of disappointment lasts. We must allow time for our habits to develop and not let our own disappointment take us out, especially at the beginning. The best way to avoid disappointment and see massive results is to set up a system that works for you.

Set Up Systems, Not Goals

“How you do anything is how you do everything.”

Dr. Andre Pinesett

Rather than try my hardest at one thing, or only do my best work when I’m blogging, I choose to try to do my best in every little thing I do. I do this for many reasons:

  1. To know myself as someone who always does their best
  2. So I don’t have to try harder than usual at any given time

I’ve developed a habit of being excellent, at least as much as I can be, all of the time. This is because I truly believe that how I do one thing is exactly how I do another. If I half ass a blog post, you can bet real good money that I’m half assing everything else I’m doing too. A big part of designing our lives is to pay close attention to how we decide to approach situations and decide if that is the kind of person that we would like to be.

When I work with my students on math problems, I do not only see how they perform academically, but I also see how they approach new challenges in general. Most get frustrated and try to ignore the problem. Some double down and use even more firepower to get through it. A few of them just lie and tell me that they understand it when they clearly do not. I don’t make judgements on their choices, I see my job as someone who ought to help them elevate their own problem solving skills by meeting them at their level.

I personally believe that the students who double down when they are confronted by challenges will be the most successful and most satisfied with their lives. Life is full of challenges and if we were only allowed to get one thing from our education it ought to be the ability to surmount challenges healthily. Using these tiny, low risk, problems as practice in developing ourselves in this skill is one of the best things we can do for ourselves.

So rather than just trying really hard in one area, we should apply Leonardo’s personal mantra to every aspect of our lives:

“Ostinato rigore” (Constant rigore)

Leonardo da Vinci (1452 – 1519)

We need consistency because we fall to the levels of our training, not to the levels of our goals. If our training is rigorous, then we will fall to the level of excellence. If we’re having trouble changing habits, then we should pay more attention to our systems.

Goals are the results of what we want to achieve and Systems are the processes that get us there. Here are a few reasons why we should have goals, but we shouldn’t focus on them:

  1. Winners and losers often have the same goals. Some people think that winners are more ambitious goals, but that isn’t the case. People who win do not win because they have ambitious goals.
  2. Achieving a goal is satisfying for a moment. The next moment, we need a new goal. If we don’t have one, we can easily spiral into depression. It’s also easy to fall into black or white thinking. Achieve goal and be happy or fail and be disappointed. If we fall in love with the process, rather than the outcome, we give ourselves permission to be happy.
  3. Solving problems on the goal level is usually only momentary. Solving problems on the systemic level will prevent similar problems from occurring in the future.

With all my content creation, blogging, YouTube Videos, and Music, I don’t try to just make 1 song every day, or 1 blog post every day. I aim to produce a little every day or write for an hour every day. Back in college, I used to tell myself that I needed to make a beat a day if I wanted to be a good producer. While its a good goal to have, I noticed that once I made the beat, I wasn’t motivated to keep going. Sometimes I wasn’t even able to make something because looking at the task at the level of making an entire beat was too big! Now I have a simple step by step system that I can run whenever I feel unmotivated or uninspired that produces content. Every step of my content creation process is crystal clear to me so all I have to do is focus on putting one foot in front of the next, rather than just trying to get to the finish line.

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