Foundational Habits

One of the frequently encountered challenges to building a productive life is uncertainty over which habits to build. In future posts, we’ll go over how to set short and long term goals for your life and break them down into a series of actions and habits over time. For this post, however, I wanted to highlight a set of foundational habits that should serve well in almost every life situation. These habits are good fundamental tools to have, regardless of the path you’re taking in life, but they also serve as a strong basis for learning how to build habits and can act as hooks to hang future habits on.

Journaling

In order to improve, I need to better understand who I am. It’s for that reason that journaling has become my most important tool in seeking to improve myself. It gives me space for self reflection and to digest the experience of my days and weeks. And because I am forced to articulate them to a reader (if only myself) I am forced to make concrete what was previously just a wash of impulses and actions. Journaling also enables big picture thinking, where I fit my experiences and goals into the larger objectives of my life. Finally, it is a place where I keep track of my progress, whether it be for building habits or towards my larger personal and professional goals. Watching this progress bar increase is a satisfying reward which reinforces virtuous habit cycles.

So, how do you get started journaling? We’ll go into this in more depth in a future post, but the short answer is the exact technique you use doesn’t really matter. I would encourage you to buy a blank journal and use it exclusively for this, buy a nice pen that you like to use, and set up a system in advance that works for you. For a lightweight approach, commit to just writing the date down every day in your journal and writing at least one sentence. Sometimes this one sentence will seem boring or redundant, but sometimes inspiration will strike and you’ll end up writing for pages. It’s from such small commitments that long-lasting habits can be born.

Meditation

Another keystone habit is meditation. Like journaling, meditation helps me reflect and understand myself better, but more importantly for me, it helps reduce the noisy impulse driven part of my mind and helps build focus. This increased focus then allows me to sit down and truly complete tasks to which I’ve set my mind. Reams of papers have been written on the other myriad psychological and physiological benefits that meditation accrues.

Again, one challenge of building a meditation habit is knowing where to start. There are many different schools of meditation, including approaches like mindfulness, zen, and loving-kindness. I would suggest initially picking any school that resonates with you without spending too much time at the decision phase. They all have things to teach and the tools from any are useful in the others. I started with mindfulness meditation and found the Headspace app helpful, although others enjoy apps like Insight Timer or Calm. Like with journaling, start small with just a 1 minute, 3 minute, or 5 minute daily commitment and see where the habit takes you from there.

Exercise

Maybe you already exercise regularly, by going to the gym, playing a sport, or even just taking regular walks. If so, you already know the benefits that having regular exercise can make in your life. If you don’t, let me try to convince you by showing you what you’re missing out on. Exercise is good for the body, yes, but it has also been shown to significantly affect the mind. It relieves anxiety, reduces depression, and improves mental health. For me, when I’ve been knocked out of my habit cycle, the increase in mental health that comes from exercise has made it a great first habit to rebuild from.

Ok, but if you don’t exercise regularly, how do you start? My advice would be to take a broad and shallow approach initially. Try lots of different forms of exercise for one or two sessions and see which one fits you best. Maybe you’ll enjoy the social aspects of joining your local badminton club, or the clarity of thought that comes from a 5 minute run. Maybe you like the measurable progress of lifting weights at the gym or the connection to nature that comes from a short hike. What works for you will depend on a lot of factors, including what’s available in your area. Start small, but try a lot of things, and try to notice which ones bring you feelings of joy that you’d like to have again.

Reading

I stopped reading books for fun in university. I found it hard to keep up a good reading habit after spending my day working through a textbook or academic papers. Youtube and Netflix were just easier ways to decompress. It wasn’t until I’d been working for a couple years that I picked up a reading habit again and rediscovered its benefits. 

Reading is the main way that new ideas enter my life. Reading a book, whether fiction or non-fiction, exposes you to new points of view and new experiences. Because when reading (unlike when watching something) we also have time to reflect, these thoughts and experiences are better integrated into our own experiences and frameworks of thinking. Unlike television, reading also pushes our minds to focus and imagine, growing these skills for our future endeavours.

So, how to get started? After my long hiatus, I set myself the simple goal of just trying to read 4 books in the next year. It was such a small, achievable number, just 1 book every 3 months (that’s like 5 pages a day or so). I didn’t give myself any other restrictions on book length, genre, or even format (audiobooks were critical), but I did start a document where I kept track of the number of books I read and their names. And that was enough. In the first year, I barely scraped by with the 4 books, but every time I added a book to my list, it felt like a huge win. The next year, I set a more ambitious goal of 8 books, and blew through that. Last year, I managed to read 50 books and am aiming even higher. Starting small and building up in any of these habits is a powerful trick.

Best of luck in building one or more of these foundational habits! We’ll dig in soon on a more detailed look at each one and a more holistic set of tips on how to start a habit and stick with it.

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