Episode: Upgrade Your Habits, Change Your Life
Megan Hyatt Miller: Hi, I’m Megan Hyatt Miller.
Larry Wilson: And I’m Larry Wilson.
Megan: And this is Lead to Win, our weekly podcast to help you win at work and succeed at life. Today, first of all, we’re having kind of a reunion show because Larry is here. Yay! And we’re talking about habits, which is a favorite topic for both of us. So, Larry, welcome.
Larry: Hey, thank you, Megan. Good to be back with you.
Megan: I have really missed you. We had a lot of fun. As we were just talking right before we came on, I was thinking, “You know what? It has been a little boring without you lately.” Don’t tell my dad.
Larry: I’m going to take that as a compliment. Hey, we’re talking about habits. This is a favorite subject of mine. I have been a believer in habits for quite a few years. I’ll tell you about the very first habit I intentionally developed, but I’m going to save that for later in the show.
Megan: Can’t wait to hear.
Larry: I kind of dove into the habit thing with both feet, but I know there are some people probably listening who are like, “Habits, schmabits.” It’s like, “I don’t have the time. It’s too hard. I tried to form a habit once. It didn’t work.” A lot of people just don’t get the value of habits.
Megan: You know, Larry, I think habits are really helpful, especially for leaders or anybody who feels like they’re just busy, which I think when we say those two things, that’s pretty much everybody. They not only help you be more intentional about the things that matter in your life (that’s important for sure), but they also automate decision-making.
We talk a lot about productivity and decision-making and automation around here. If you’re a leader or you’re busy, you’re probably making a lot of decisions, and one of the reasons you may find yourself tired or mentally exhausted is decision fatigue, because you’re making so many decisions all day long. If you can automate some of those through habits, that’s so, so helpful.
Larry: Decision fatigue is a real thing. I was reading an article just recently about how many people are suffering from mental fatigue due to COVID and all of the stresses of 2020, not just the pandemic. It’s a real thing, and the amount of time you spend making decisions really drains you. There’s some research on this too. Only about 5 percent of your brain is dedicated to that kind of thought, decision-making…your prefrontal cortex. It’s a small part of your brain, but it takes up to 25 percent of your energy.
Megan: Wow! So, how do you reconcile those two things?
Larry: Right in the front of your head. That’s a hot little spot. A lot of thoughts going through there. If you can take some of those decisions and automate them, not have to make the same choices every single day, it really frees up your mind, frees up your brain, and you feel better. You have more energy as a result. It’s less stressful.
Larry: Today we’re going to talk about the reasons every leader should review their habits and fine-tune their habits. We have three great reasons. There’s one more thing I think we probably ought to say before we dive in, Megan, for those, I’ll just call them, habit deniers out there.
Megan: Maybe we should call them habit skeptics. They’re just not sure yet.
Larry: That’s better. They’re just not sure about it. Let me just challenge you with this. You have habits. You may not think about them. You may not want to form them. You may not even be aware of them, but there are things you do by force of habit every single day. We’re just talking about being intentional with those habits and helping you out as a leader, as a worker, as a person. Let’s get to our three reasons that every leader should fine-tune their habits. The first one is habits simplify your life.
Megan: This is a big one, and this is really what we were talking about at the beginning of the show, which is leveraging the power of automation to save your energy and eliminate decisions that otherwise you would have to make. This is one of the best ways that, especially right now, we can eliminate the mental fatigue we’re all experiencing. Every decision you have to make from the ground up takes a certain amount of energy, just like you were talking about.
When we automate things, when we develop habits, it’s almost like we’re making a decision once that eliminates hundreds of decisions down the road. One of the examples I love for this… For a long time, I really struggled with nutrition. That was something that was really important to me. I wanted to take care of my body well, make sure I fueled my body in certain ways so I would have energy and optimal health, and all that kind of stuff.
But I found that I would oftentimes find myself coming out of my office (now my home office) at noon and going to the refrigerator and standing there like, “What should I have for lunch? Oh, shoot. I thought we had leftovers, but one of the kids had the leftovers,” or whatever. I would then not have time to make something, and I would skip meals or just not eat something that was as nutritious as I wanted.
Several months ago, I started every single morning when I wake up, as part of my morning ritual, deciding exactly what I’m going to eat for the day. It’s not any particular nutritional philosophy or anything like that, but just going ahead and doing the habit of planning my food for the day and then deciding that what I plan is what I’m going to eat. Once I make those decisions, there are no decisions to make for the rest of the day. I know what I’m going to have for breakfast. I know what I’m going to have for lunch, dinner, snack, etcetera. It’s all planned out.
What’s so nice is that when I come out of my office for lunch or when it’s time to make dinner, there are no questions, because I’ve planned, usually on the weekend, for what we’re going to have for dinner throughout the week, and I’ve planned every morning for what I’m having for the other meals, and I just know. I’m telling you what. It has really freed up mental space for me to not have to think about that constantly. If you think about it, you’re making decisions about what you’re eating at least four times a day.
Larry: That does a couple of things. It saves you time too. It reduces the mental fatigue, but if you were able to calculate the amount of time you stand there doing what I’ve heard called “refrigepeat”…go to the refrigerator, open the door, close it, walk away… If you were to add up that time, I bet you spend 20 minutes a day just dithering about what to have for breakfast, what to have for lunch. If you’re going out, “Where should I go for lunch today? What should I get at the drive-through?” or whatever it is. Habits really simplify that. I know, Megan, your dad Michael has used on this program a number of times the example about some leaders who wear the same thing every day.
Megan: Exactly. It’s kind of the same concept except applied nutritionally.
Larry: I’m not a great leader, but I wear the same thing almost every single day.
Megan: You do. That’s so true.
Larry: People ask, “Larry, why do you wear so many black shirts?” It’s because it goes with everything, and I just take the next one off the rack, and that’s my outfit. I don’t think about it. It’s one thing I don’t have to spend time on. Habits simplify your life. We should talk a little bit about, just to mention, rituals as well. Your daily rituals, which we preach pretty often here on Lead to Win, really are habits, aren’t they?
Megan: Yeah. It’s kind of a group of habits, actually. One of the things I’ve been very intentional about is my morning ritual for a while, and if you’ve been listening to this podcast for any length of time, you know my dad and I often talk about the different stages of life we’re at. My morning ritual looks different than his morning ritual, but we both have one, and we both have for a long, long time. What I love about it is it takes the decision-making about how to set myself up for a great day off the table. That’s not even necessary.
By having this morning ritual, I have a series of things I do each and every day that set me up for success. For example, I start my day in my morning ritual with some devotional time. It’s not very long because I have young kids, so I have about an hour for my morning ritual before my kids start getting up. I plan my day in my Full Focus Planner, so I’ve identified my Daily Big 3 tasks that I need to complete, the most important things I can do today to make progress on my goals for the quarter.
I then plan my food, as I was just saying. “What am I going to eat today?” Then I exercise and get ready. It’s not very complicated, but I do the same things in the exact same order for pretty much the exact same amount of time every day, and I never have to think about it. I leave everything right by my chair where I sit in the morning. I did forget coffee. Coffee always comes first. Let’s be honest about that.
Larry: That’s an example, Megan, of a habit you don’t even think you have, because you don’t even list it when you think of habits. It’s just so automatic. That’s what habits become. You don’t even think about them.
Megan: But I never forget it. Larry, you were talking earlier about people who wear the same type of clothes every day to eliminate those decisions, you being one of those people. What about food? Is there anything you eat every day for the same meal that’s just repetitive?
Larry: Yeah, but only two out of the three meals. I don’t eat the same thing for supper every day.
Megan: Oh, okay. Tell us.
Larry: Not every single day, but breakfast is a banana and a half an avocado or a banana and an apple, once in a while a protein shake. Lunch is (it goes in spells; I have a couple I rotate in and rotate out) either a salad, which I usually make ahead of time, or a smoothie. Then for supper, there are about five in rotation. There are certain meals I prepare, and I don’t think that much about it. It’s just, “Okay. We’re going to have pork chop tonight, so that goes with this, this, and that.” And boom, boom, boom. There’s no thought involved. You just do it.
Megan: That’s awesome. It definitely simplifies your life.
Larry: It sure does. I could also eat peanut butter every single day from now to eternity.
Megan: Me too. I also eat chocolate every day.
Larry: It’s probably good for you.
Megan: There’s probably not a day that goes by that I don’t eat chocolate. It’s always on my food plan.
Larry: It’s probably good for you, because it has the good kind of fat and it helps your brain. In fact, why don’t we get some chocolate right now?
Megan: Right. Who can get us some chocolate?
Larry: Carry us through the rest of this podcast. The first reason to fine-tune your habits is that habits simplify your life. We’ve already gotten a little bit into the second reason, but I think we should talk more about this: habits shape your success. You talked about how your rituals especially set you up for success during the day, but here’s a question: Can habits work the other way? I mean, can they undermine your success as well?
Megan: Oh yeah. Absolutely. For example, one of the habits I know can undermine my morning ritual… This is an impulse I fight every morning. I do not allow myself to check the news until I’m through all of those things I told you, until I have my devotions, I have my day planned in my Full Focus Planner, and I have my food planned. That’s when I pick up my phone and check my email and look at the news.
If I let myself do that at the beginning, especially when I used to be on social media… I think I’ve said on the podcast before I’m no longer on social media, but when I was on social media, good grief! If I opened up Instagram or Facebook and went down that rabbit hole, I would look up, and my hour for all of those different things would be gone and I would have no plan for my day, no plan for my food, no spiritual time. I just kind of would fall into my day, and that would be habitual.
Larry: I’ve gone back and forth on the news. This year, I’ve tried to avoid reading too much news and not read it first thing in the morning, but it’s a habit. I get up, I have my coffee, and I read the news. And wow, can that just tank your attitude for the whole day if you don’t do something to arrest it. So I’ve tried, like you, to break that habit. Not that I don’t want to be informed, but not the first thing in the morning. That’s not the best way to set my mind up for success.
Megan: Right. It’s not even really necessary for success if you think about it. You do need to be generally informed, but if you had to choose between making a plan for your day, for example, and catching up on the news, you could probably be fine if you didn’t catch up on the news for a day, but if you didn’t have a plan for the day, it’s functionally wasted or liable to be derailed in some way.
That’s always how I think about it. I want to make sure I get the most important things done and that those are habituated into my routine or my ritual every morning so I can make sure I’m setting myself up for success. Everything else is kind of ancillary to that, but at least I want to make sure I get those core habits in. For me, my morning ritual is the most important in my day.
Larry: Speaking of setting yourself up for success and habits shaping your success, have you ever created a habit to help you make an achievement goal? Like, something you want to achieve, and you think, “If I do this every day, it will help me reach that goal?”
Megan: Here’s an example of a habit that would help to accomplish an achievement goal. Typically, I will have some kind of a financial goal every year around saving. That’s a year-end goal, but I have a monthly habit that’s an automatic transfer that’s going to help me with that. I think that’s a good example of how you can use a habit, a discipline that’s happening on a regular, recurring basis, that helps you accomplish something big later.
Larry: It really works too. That automatic transfer automates it to the degree that you literally don’t ever think about it. It’s just done for you. It’s a once-and-done decision. For years, I wanted to be a more consistent journaler. Someone suggested to me about seven years ago… It was at the end of 2013 that I began the practice of writing 750 words every morning. It’s called Morning Pages, and a lot of writers and artists will do it. It’s kind of a well-known practice. So I began to do that.
Now, I’ve had to reinstall that habit a few times because I get out of the habit. A month will go by and I’ll have to get back into it, and I don’t do it every single day, but I use a site for that called 750words.com. It keeps some stats for me, which you know I love. I have written in those seven years a little bit over 1.5 million words.
Megan: Whoa! That’s amazing. That’s a lot of words.
Larry: It’s a lot.
Megan: I mean, a typical book is like 60,000 to 70,000 words. Right?
Larry: Yeah. That would be a good full-length book.
Megan: So, you’ve written a lot of books.
Larry: It’s about like writing three books a year. Now, to write a book takes a lot longer. There’s more research involved. It’s not off the top of your head writing, but it goes to show that if your goal is to do anything big, you can break it down into a habit. If you write a little bit every day, if you walk a little bit every day, if you run a little bit every day, to get at fitness goals, there are ways to break your achievement goal down into habits that will virtually achieve themselves.
I think there are some straight-up work-related habits that further your success. For example, writing up your notes immediately after the meeting. It’s a habit I got into some years ago, and wow! That cut down on the “Hey, what did we decide yesterday?” phone calls.
Megan: Right. One of my work-related habits is that I meet with my direct reports once every two weeks, and I have a rotation of meetings I go through with them. That keeps us connected. It enables me to invest in their leadership development and make sure I have my finger on the pulse of the business through my leaders all the time. That’s a habit that’s easy to take for granted, but the rhythm and the habitual nature of those meetings with direct reports can kind of make or break performance in a lot of ways.
Larry: It really can. I like what you said, that it’s the rhythm of the habit. We’ve been talking about a lot of things that are pretty much daily, but not all habits are daily. There is a phenomenon that happens in habit building. When you encounter the cue, or the activation trigger, for that habit, it will kick in. It doesn’t matter if it’s every morning, twice a day, morning and evening, every Wednesday, or once a month. It will just kick in when you encounter that cue. The habit behavior takes over and voila! You’ve automated a behavior.
Megan: Absolutely. Okay, Larry. I have a question for you. I feel like, as our resident researcher, you know the answer to this, probably. Is there any research around habit stacking? Like, it’s easier to install habits or it’s easier to remain consistent with habits when you put them together, for example, in a morning ritual? I’ve found that just anecdotally to be true, that my habits are reinforcing of one another, particularly when they’re grouped together. But is there research for that?
Larry: Yes, there is. Sometime here in 2020, we had the book Good Habits, Bad Habits by Wendy Wood as a LeaderBooks selection. It’s about the science of making positive changes that stick. She goes into detail about how habits are formed and how they sort of stick together, and then how they come unglued.
One of the fascinating things I discovered there is that you can actually swap out habits by pairing a new behavior with the same cue or the same activation trigger. The activation trigger starts the chain. For example, you mentioned your morning routine. I forget the exact order, but it starts with coffee, and then a walk, some exercise, planning your day, reading the news. Well, if you wanted to initiate that in a different way, if you wanted to give up coffee, for example…
Megan: Never. Not going to happen.
Larry: Well, let’s go with the next one. If you wanted to get up and read before you went for your walk, you just begin to pair that reading with your coffee. So, you have your coffee, then you read, and within a very short time, you transfer the activation trigger to a new behavior, and the loop just keeps on going.
Megan: That’s awesome.
Larry: So, we’ve talked about two reasons you should fine-tune your habits. First, it simplifies your life. Secondly, habits shape your success. I think the third one is the most powerful, Megan: habits lead to transformation.
Megan: Absolutely. I think we all intuitively know this is true, but what you do shapes who you are. If you want to become more productive, more successful at accomplishing your goals, more fit, more spiritually connected, more relationally connected, or whatever, the key is the habit you’re forming, because your habits are the recurring behaviors you have day in or week in, week out, that over time add up to real change and real transformation.
For example, if you’re a person who every day plans your day and identifies the three most important things you need to accomplish… If you do that every day, you have 365 days a year times three important things per day that you’ve accomplished. I mean, that’s like a thousand important things per year in change. That’s a big deal.
Larry: Yeah. It just begins with the simple habit to do that one thing every day, and it opens a gateway to so much positive change.
Megan: Exactly. Similarly, if you think about exercise… The health ones are really easy to wrap your mind around. If you exercise every day because that’s a habit, the level of fitness and health you’re going to have is going to be dramatically better than if that’s haphazard or doesn’t happen at all. Same thing if I have a habit of a weekly date night with Joel, which I do. Our marriage is going to be better because we purposefully invested 52 times a year in each other on that weekly date night.
So, those are the kinds of things that lead to transformation. They add up over time, but when you don’t have them, then it becomes kind of random what you experience in your life in terms of results and outcome. You’re really not getting the true transformation. So, that’s one of my favorite things about habits. You put a relatively small amount of effort on a daily or weekly or monthly basis, but over time, it becomes a lot and the changes you can see in your life are huge.
Larry: The amount of time you invest in the habit, even setting it up to begin with and then doing it at whatever frequency, is really small. I’ll give you an example. I mentioned the very first habit I ever intentionally formed, and that was flossing my teeth. I hope my hygienist is listening.
Megan: Great job, Larry.
Larry: Many years ago, when I was a young adult… You’re kind of off on your own. You’re living life independently. I had a disastrous trip to the dentist’s office. He said, “Larry, this is not uncommon with young adults because you don’t have anybody making you brush and floss your teeth, and so on, but you’ve got to take this seriously.” So, for once I did. I did something similar to what you did, Megan. Every evening, before I would go to bed, I’d always brush my teeth, and I thought, “How much longer will it take to floss?” Well, it takes about a minute.
Megan: Not much.
Larry: Not very long at all. I successfully installed that habit 35 years ago, and I have done it virtually every day since then.
Megan: Wow. That’s awesome.
Larry: What a difference it has made in my health. There are so many positive habits we could talk about. The ones that deal with personal health and personal well-being and relational health are so important, but there are just as many that have to do with your work life, like getting to inbox zero and making that a practice…how freeing that is, how much stress it reduces. It’s a relatively simple thing to do if you just do it consistently.
Megan: That’s right.
Larry: Make it a habit and do it at the beginning and the end of every day.
Megan: Okay. One thing I forgot to mention earlier is that we actually have a brand-new book coming out in a couple of weeks on habits…how to develop habits, how to get better at habits. It’s called No-Fail Habits. It’s from Michael Hyatt & Company, of course. Larry, will you tell us a little bit about what is in this book and what people can expect to learn?
Larry: Yeah. First of all, it’s important to realize if you’ve been a habit skeptic, as we’ve mentioned, the reason people try and fail to install new habits is that they don’t really understand how the habit process works. It’s so automatic that you never see it in yourself. The first part of the book is a deep dive in what’s called the habit loop. It’s how this activation trigger, the cue, the response, the reward, and repetition, how that all fits together to form a habitual action.
Once you understand that, you can routinize or make a habit out of virtually any behavior. Anything you want to do consistently you can make a habit out of, and you can learn how to break that chain to get rid of some of those bad habits you don’t want. So, that’s one of the big outcomes of the book: to learn how habits work and how you can make them work for you.
Megan: I love that. It’s kind of like how to hack your brain, in a way, to become your ally in building habits. I think that’s one of the things that whether you are a habit skeptic or you are a habit junkie and you’re looking for an edge to take it to the next level… In either case, this is the perfect book. Like all of the books we create, this is super practical. It’s going to give you a clear plan on how to create habits, how to get better at habits in your life.
Again, it’s going to come out in a couple of weeks. If you want to be notified when it is released so you can make sure to get your copy (this will be both a physical book and a digital book), you can go to mh.fullfocus.co/countdown. That’s going to connect you with the page about our Countdown to 2021. We have all kinds of great things happening there, but one of the things we’ll be doing is letting everybody know when No-Fail Habits is released. You’re definitely going to want to get this in preparation for the new year, and it also would make a great gift for your team or friends and family for Christmas.
Larry: Well, Megan, we’ve talked about the reasons everybody should fine-tune their habits and up their habit game a bit. It simplifies your life, it shapes your success, and ultimately, it leads to transformation. What final thoughts do you have for our listeners today?
Megan: I think the biggest thing is in 2020, we are all looking for ways to make our lives less stressful, less exhausting, more enjoyable, and kind of rediscover our agency and our sense of control in our lives. Habits are one of the best ways to do all of those things. Whether, as we have been talking about, you’re a habit skeptic or a habit junkie and you love habits, this is one of the tools in your toolbox for 2020, and for sure for 2021, that you can leverage. I think if you give it a chance, you will fall in love with habits all over again, because they really make your life easier.
Larry: I would just add that habits are actually quite easy. If you struggle to form habits, you should know it’s something you absolutely can do. You can install these behaviors that will simplify your life, set you up for success, and ultimately be very transforming.
Megan: Well, Larry, thanks for joining us today, and thank all of you who are joining us here. Can’t wait to see you next week right here again on Lead to Win.