Good Habits are the Foundation of Success

A hiker overlooks the sunset. Text "Not all classrooms have four walls" appears on the graphic.

Excellence is not a singular act. You are what you repeatedly do.

- Shaquille O’Neal

Let’s begin this lesson with a riddle.

Who am I?

I am your constant companion.

I am your greatest helper or heaviest burden.

I will push you onward to success or drag you down to failure.

I am completely at your command.

Half the things you do might just as well be turned over to me and I will be able to do them quickly and correctly.

I am not a machine, though I work with all the precision of a machine plus the intelligence of a person.

Take me, train me, be firm with me, and I will place the world at your feet.

Be easy with me and I can destroy you. Who am I?


A teacher was trying to impress upon her pupils the importance of doing right at all times, and so to bring out the answer, ‘Bad Habits.’ She inquired: ‘What is it that we find so easy to get into and so hard to get out of?” There was a silence for a moment and then one little fellow answered, “Bed.”

I wonder how many of you have ever read ‘The Zebra Question.’

A little boy once asked a zebra.

Are you black with white stripes?

Or white with black stripes?

And then the zebra asked him,

Are you good with bad habits?

Or are you bad with good habits?

Are you happy with some sad days?

Or are you sad with some happy days?

I would like to think that the majority of people are good with some bad habits and happy with some occasional sad days.

The following discussion was highlighted in a Pickles cartoon:

“What’s the matter, Earl?” asks Opal, his wife.

“I’m stuck in a rut.” he replied.

“In a rut? What does that mean?”

“I don’t know. I just can’t get motivated to get off my rear end and do anything.”

“That’s your rut? So, when have you ever not been in a rut?”

George Crabb once penned, “Habit with him was all the test of truth,

it must be right, I’ve done it since my youth.”

Your habits will determine your future, and if you keep doing things a certain way, you’ll be able to predict the results. It’s the simple law of cause and effect. Successful habits create positive rewards. Negative habits breed negative consequences. Most of our habits are learned, not instinctual, but we perform them unconsciously all the time. This is a good thing. You would waste a lot of time if you had to think through every step of your morning routine or driving your car.

M.J. Ryan writes, “Habit is necessary; it is the habit of having habits, of turning a trail into a rut that must be incessantly fought against if one is to remain alive.”

It’s enlightening to consider how the same behavior can be seen as either positive or negative. A father was brushing his teeth when his seven-year old daughter barged into the bathroom. “Aha,” she rebuked, “so you’re the one who keeps putting the cap back on the toothpaste.” A little girl writing an essay on parents wrote, “The trouble with parents is that they are so old when we get them, it’s hard to change their habits.”

Your habits will determine your future, and if you keep doing things a certain way, you’ll be able to predict the results.

When you woke up this morning, what did you do first? Did you have a shower, or grab a coffee? Did you brush your teeth before or after you showered and toweled off? Did you put your left or right shoe on first? Which route did you drive to work? William James wrote: “All our life is a mass of habits.” Let’s make sure our life is not a mess of bad habits.

By definition, habits are repeated, nearly automatic actions that are triggered by contextual clues. When you get into a car, you put on your seat belt if you have already made it a habit. When you wake up in the morning, you jump in the shower. Or grab a coffee. Once formed, habits require little willpower and even less forethought. If you can turn healthy behaviors into habits, maintaining them is a snap. Forming a new habit is really a simple task: get yourself to do something repetitively and consistently and in the same context and it will become a habit. It is important to understand how new habits take hold. Eventually, we become our habits. In the words of poet John Dryden, “We first make our habits, and then our habits make us.”

Hal Urban chips in, “We’re creatures of habit. Some psychologists believe that up to 95% of our behavior is formed though habit. Most of them start innocently and unintentionally. At the beginning they form a kind of invisible thread. But through repetition, the thread becomes entwined into a chord and later into a rope. Each time we repeat an act, we add to it and strengthen it. The rope becomes a chain and then a cable. It’s not my purpose to offer a scientific explanation of how and why we form habits. I just want to point out, we all do. Habits are part of being human. No one escapes them. I don’t advise people to avoid forming habits. They couldn’t anyways. I advise them to think about the kinds of habits they are forming. Whether we like it or not, we become slaves to our habits. They end up working either for us or against us.”

One of my favorite writings is a work by Portia Nelson entitled. “Autobiography in Five Short Chapters:

Chapter 1: I walk down the street.

There is a deep hole in the sidewalk.

I fall in. I am lost. I am helpless.

It is not my fault.

It seems me forever to find a way out.

Chapter 2: I walk down the same street.

There’s a deep hole in the sidewalk.

I pretend I don’t see it.

I fall in again.

I can’t believe I’m in the same place.

But it isn’t my fault.

It still takes a long time to get out.

Chapter 3: I walk down the same street.

There’s a deep hole in the sidewalk.

I see it is still there.

I still fall in…It’s a habit.

My eyes are open.

I know where I am.

It is my fault.

I get out immediately.

Chapter 4: I walk down the same street.

There’s a deep hole in the sidewalk.

I walk around it.

Chapter 5: I walk down a different street.

Always remember the ‘’First Rule of Holes: If you’re in one, stop digging.

What is the definition of insanity? Albert Einstein defined it this way: Insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.

M.J. Ryan in her book, This Year I Will, writes: “I find myself in the kitchen in front of the open refrigerator door with a piece of cheese in my hand. How did I get there? Suddenly my fingernails are chewed to nubs. Did someone sneak in the house and bite them? The tendency is to keep doing what we already have done is very strong because the neurons on our brains that fire together wire together, meaning that they tend to run the same sequence the next time whether we want to or not. The brain’s tendency to habituate means we go through much of our life like sleepwalkers. That’s why when we want to create new habits or change old ones, our most important ally is being awake to our experience. We’ve got to become aware of what we’re doing or not doing.” We need to live less out of habit and more out of intent. Remember, experience isn’t always the best teacher - evaluated experience is.

Changing bad habits is not easy.

A gentleman named John Henry Fabre conducted an experiment with processionary caterpillars. They are so named because of their peculiar habit of blindly following each other no matter how they are lined up or where they are going. They generally move through trees in a long procession, one leading and the others following, each with his eyes closed and its head fitted against the rear extremity of his predecessor.

He took a group of these tiny creatures and did something interesting with them. He placed them in a circle in the rim of a larger flower pot where he succeeded in getting the first one connected with the last one, thus forming a complete circle which started moving in a procession which had no beginning and no end. For 24 hours, the caterpillars dutifully followed one another around and around. They were following instinct…habit…custom and past experience. They meant well, but got no place.

Are negative habits firmly holding you back? Are you stuck?

Ashleigh Brilliant asks, “Why do I suffer the same painful consequences every time I perform the same foolish acts?

Dr. Gail Brenner writes in a wonderful article, The Pain of Being Stuck, “And who doesn’t know what it’s like to be stuck? We find ourselves doing the same unsatisfying thing time after time or looking at situations and people in the same habitual way that doesn’t get us what we really want. Being stuck is tunnel vision, it’s prison, it’s limited and it’s both small and frustrating. The good news is that you can get unstuck. No matter what habit is gripping you, you can find the courage to explore it, to understand how it works, and to understand the feelings that drive it. Habits can’t sustain themselves in the light of conscious awareness.”

Brenner continues with some facts about getting unstuck, "Dismantling habits takes patience. Your habits have probably been in place for years, so it will take some time to unwind. This means you will keep doing it even when you don’t want to. Moving through habits takes focus, willingness and perseverance. You are addressing an automatic, repetitive, long-standing pattern that has momentum. Your true desire has to be stronger than the force of the habit itself. You will experience urges and cravings. No matter what pattern you are addressing, the moment of the urge to engage in it, once again, is a moment of truth. Be gentle with yourself, but don’t lose focus. Start small, and keep going, seeing each experience as an opportunity for learning."

It’s hard to let old beliefs go. They are familiar; we are comfortable with them and have spent years building systems and developing habits that depend on them.

Changing bad habits is not easy. Our brains create strong tendencies to do the same thing over and over. We say we’re going to change; we may even do it for a little while, but soon we find ourselves back to our old habits. To bring new behavior takes work. Abigail Van Buren writes, “A bad habit never disappears miraculously; it’s an undo-it-yourself project.” Mark Twain adds, “A habit cannot be tossed out the window; it must be coaxed down the stairs a step at a time.”

When trying to change a bad habit, ambivalence is normal and to be expected. We may want to change but we are not sure. We don’t know what the new behavior will mean. In addition, every single choice we make means giving up something to get something else. Ambivalence will be strongest at the beginning and will decrease as you see the benefits of your new behavior. And even after we do start, our initial motivation may weaken. Then we require discipline to keep going.

Our goal throughout these lessons is to be the best version of ourselves. How do you become the person you want to be? You start to adopt the right thinking, learn the right skills, and develop the habits of the person you want to be. What you do today is one one action toward who you will be tomorrow. Get into the habit of asking yourself, “Does this support the life I’m trying to create?”

It’s hard to let old beliefs go. They are familiar; we are comfortable with them and have spent years building systems and developing habits that depend on them. Like a man who has worn eyeglasses so long, he forgets he has them on, we forget that the world looks to us the way it does because we have become used to seeing it that way through a particular set of lenses. John Mark Green writes: “It requires no extra effort to settle for the same old thing. Autopilot keeps us locked into past patterns. But transforming your life? That requires courage, commitment, and effort. It’s tempting to stay camped in the zone of ‘That’s-Just-How-It-Is.’ But to get really good stuff in life, you have to be willing to become an explorer and adventurer.”

Here are some bad habits people have that affect their lives:

  • Living on auto-pilot.

  • Fearing change.

  • Spending too much time on social media or watching TV/Netflix.

  • Being late to meetings or social engagements.

  • Regularly missing deadlines.

  • Complaining all the time.

  • Snacking when you are not hungry.

  • Smoking.

  • Eating too much fast food.

  • Excessive procrastinating.

As someone who left everything to the last minute said, “I’m not a procrastinator. I just prefer doing all my work in a deadline-induced panic!”

Being miserable is a habit; being happy is a habit; and the choice is yours.

M.J. Ryan on New Year’s Resolutions asks, “How many of us have made a resolution similar to one of these?”

  • This year I’m going to stop smoking.

  • This year I am going to exercise regularly.

  • This year I’m going to de-clutter my house.

Surveys say that over 50% of us make New Year’s resolutions, but less than 8 percent succeed.

Ryan continues: “We all have something we want to change about ourselves or learn to do. But it’s not easy. Our brains create strong tendencies to do the same thing over and over. To bring new behavior into being takes work. There are three things needed to make any change: desire, intent and persistence. The process is not getting rid of bad habits, the pathway to your current behavior is there for life. Stopping a bad habit, like smoking, is really about creating a good new habit, non-smoking.”

She then writes about some resolution pitfalls, which can actually be applied to any difficult habit change:

  • Being vague about what you want.

  • Not making a serious commitment.

  • Procrastination and excuse making.

  • Being unwilling to go through the awkward phase.

  • Expecting perfection.

  • Trying to go it alone.

  • Turning slip ups into give-ups.

And let us not forget that some long-standing positive habits are worth keeping and are just like old friends. Apparently when singer/songwriter Billy Joel is struggling with writer’s block, he doesn’t go to a shrink or a doctor. Rather, he puts on the clothes he’s worn when he’s written successfully in the past, goes to the café where he’s written well before, orders the same drink, and uses the same pen and notebook that have brought him success in the past. I too have been subjected to writer’s block a couple of times since starting this series of lessons and have followed in the style of habitual patterns similar to the above with great success.

Let’s close this blog with a Peanuts Review. There are many Peanuts cartoons which show Lucy holding a football so Charlie Brown can run up and kick it. But each time, she lifts the ball off the ground at the last minute, and Charlie Brown misses the kick and falls to the ground. Do you think that better habits would improve the relationship between Lucy and Charlie Brown? Could better habits improve your own personal relationships both at work and at home?

Being miserable is a habit; being happy is a habit; and the choice is yours. What do you choose? Talking about our problems is our greatest addiction. Break the habit. Talk about your joys. Remember, what you aren’t changing you are choosing.

Watch your thoughts, for they become words.

Watch your words, for they become actions.

Watch your actions for they become habits.

Your habits decide your future. You know the differences between good and bad habits. Act accordingly and appropriately at all times.

Food for Thought

What’s one good habit you would like to start doing this month? There will never be a perfect time to start. What’s holding you back?

What are some habits you have in your life that have led you to where you are right now?

What’s one negative habit or harmful thing you would like to eliminate form your life? What or who is stopping you from doing that?

The difference in who you are and who you want to be is what you do. Do something each week this month that your future self will thank you for.

Choose one quote every day or perhaps one or two every week if you like. How do these quotes speak to you? What applications do you see in your life? Share your chosen quotes with a family member, a friend, a business colleague. Create a ‘quote of the day’ club at work.

The most unendurable thing, to be sure, the really terrible thing would be a life without habits, a life that continually required improvisation.

- Friedrich Nietzsche

Nothing so needs reforming as other people’s habits.

- Mark Twain

The secret to permanently breaking any bad habit is to love something greater than the habit.

- Bryant McGill

It is easier to prevent bad habits than to break them.

- Benjamin Franklin

The first problem for all of us, men and women, is not to learn, but to unlearn.

- Gloria Steinem

The unfortunate thing about this world is that good habits are so much easier to give up than bad ones.

- Somerset Maugham

Habit is either the best of servants or the worst of masters.

- Nathaniel Emmons

Habit: something you do without thinking, which is why most of us have so many of them.

- Frank A. Clark

Habits prepare us for everything but change.

- Charles Holton

Chains of habits are too light to be felt until they are too heavy to be broken.

- Warren Buffett

Freedom: the right to choose the habits that bind you.

- Renate Rubinstein

To cease smoking is the easiest thing I ever did. I ought to know because I’ve done it a thousand times.

- Mark Twain

Habits are safer than rules, you don’t have to watch them. And you don’t have to keep them, either. They keep you.

- Dr. Frank Crane

Motivation is what gets you started. Habit is what keeps you going.

- Jim Ryun

The habits that took years to build, do not take a day to change.

- Susan Powter

We repeat what we don’t repair.

- Christine Langley Obaugh

If you quit once, it becomes a habit.

- Michael Jordan

Every time you are tempted to react in the same old way, ask if you want to be a prisoner of the past or a pioneer of the future.

- Deepak Chopra

People do not decide their futures, they decide their habits and their habits decide their futures.

- F.M. Alexander

The habit of persistence is the habit of victory.

- Herbert Kaufman

If you always do what you always did, you will always get what you always got.

- Albert Einstein

Make it a point to do something every day that you don’t want to do. This is the golden rule for acquiring the habit of doing your duty without pain.

- Mark Twain

Curious things, habits. People never knew they had them.

- Agatha Christie

People prefer the familiar because it is comfortable.

- William Harvey

Next Lesson: Change is Inevitable but Suffering is Optional

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