Three years ago I was working 90-odd hours a week and in the process of finalizing my divorce. I was drinking every night and feeling at my lowest ever.
I was fundamentally out of balance and really had nobody to blame but myself. I hadn’t tried to sabotage my life, I hadn’t meant to be so oblivious to what I was doing. But I was. It was startling to realize just how little I knew about myself.
Balance in life is actually about control. Not control in the “I need to make sure everything is perfect” way. I was all too familiar with that. But control in the sense of conscious choice.
Having the awareness of what’s happening — what you feel and believe — and being able to make a decision from that place of awareness. This is the turning point in my life where I started to take ownership of my story. This is when I started to change the decisions in my life to match the outcomes I truly wanted.
I experimented with a lot of approaches, tried out a lot of ideas. In the end, one of the most helpful changes I made was simple: designing new daily habits.
Why bother with daily habits?
Here’s why habits matter. Reason number one is that all big outcomes are built on the back of tiny decisions. Let that sink in a bit. The gold medals, the published books, the million-dollar investments. They’re built on sometimes lifelong foundations of training, writing, practicing.
Tiny, everyday decisions matter just as much in designing a fulfilling and intentional life. And, let’s be really clear here. Building a fulfilling life is a big outcome. As big as a gold medal.
According to the 2017 Harris Poll Survey of American Happiness, only 33% of Americans surveyed said they were happy.
Reason number two is that our lives are, in a lot of ways, on autopilot. No matter how much we want to take the reigns and own our story, it’s hard to “always be on.”
A Duke University 2006 study found that up to 45% of all our daily behaviors are automatic.
We’re a product of our environment, so why not design the environment better? Make the routine work for us. Use autopilot to our advantage and create habits that give us more daily fulfillment.
12 daily habits that matter
There are a ton of things that you can build into a daily routine, but 12 stand out to me as being more useful than the rest. This list is by no means exhaustive — find what resonates with you.
The important thing is to choose habits that you can commit to doing every single day. Be realistic about which you can choose to try. Be compassionate to yourself if you miss a day, but try not to.
This one is a no-brainer. There’s more research on the benefits of exercise than anything else on this list. I just read this great article by Markham Heid which lays out a lot of those benefits.
Beyond health, exercise is a great way to break up the day and kickstart the creative process. I’ve found that I’m twice as productive on days when I take time out to exercise. But the real value of it as a daily habit is in what you tell yourself. When you exercise, you’re investing in yourself and telling yourself that you matter. That your health and fitness matter. It’s a powerful affirmation.
For this, and any of the habits below, I really believe that something is better than nothing. Yes, it’s ideal to exercise for at least 20 minutes to affect cardiovascular health. Yes, you’re going to have to take an hour out of your day if you want to get to the gym and do weight training.
A habit begins by just doing something, anything. Do 25 pushups, do some crunches or squats. Go on a long walk. Do something and be proud of it.
Stretching is great because of the whole-body value. We can argue about the actual health benefits of stretching, but I challenge you to not feel better after a good stretch.
The nice thing about stretching is that it doesn’t take long at all. A little stretching every day increases flexibility and it feels great to notice that improvement over time. I really like doing my stretches because it’s a nice moment to pause and disengage with other life stuff.
Try to get your entire body involved, do some yoga poses if you know them. Take a yoga class or find some videos on YouTube if you don’t. Focus on breathing and relax into your stretches. Do this right before or after exercise to make it easier to remember.
3. Healthy eating
Your body is a temple — take care of it! You are what you eat, and when you eat crap you feel crappy. Sure, this is a really tough one. I find it easier to make an hour for exercise than I do to say no to French fries. But the benefits are enormous, because nothing has an impact on our body’s chemistry as much the chemicals we choose to put into our body.
This isn’t about counting calories and losing weight. That’s a different goal. This is about intentionality and control. Choose what matters to you. Avoid anything fried or processed. Eat a full serving of fruits and vegetables every day. Whatever it is, make the goal simple but beneficial, and don’t choose something so difficult you set yourself up for failure.
4. Drinking water
There’s a case to be made that we don’t need all that much water. We can get some of our water from food and drinking beyond our thirst is arguably less of a health benefit than we once thought. But I notice a real effect on my health and mood when I’m drinking a lot of water.
“We find that when people are mildly dehydrated they really don’t do as well on tasks that require complex processing or on tasks that require a lot of their attention,” -Mindy Millard-Stafford, director of the Exercise Physiology Laboratory, Georgia Institute of Technology
Try setting a target for how much water you want to drink in a day. The biggest indirect benefit of drinking water is that we’re not drinking other crap. Sugary beverages, alcohol, caffeine. Water is a no-regrets choice!
Meditation has recently come into the mainstream in a really big way. Once a pop psychology phenomenon, meditation is now backed by good, peer-reviewed data showing it can counterbalance anxiety, depression, and pain.
I’ve personally found an enormous benefit from it. It gives me a chance to pause, reset, and address the day with an intentional focus that I otherwise don’t have. It’s exercise for the mind.
If you want to get started easily, I recommend trying the app Headspace, but there are others. Some of the best books I’ve found on the topic are:
Wherever You Go, There You Are by Jon Kabat-Zinn
Meditation for Fidgety Skeptics by Dan Harris
The Little Book of Being by Diana Winston
Just Sit by Sukey Novogratz and Elizabeth Novogratz
Fully Present by Susan L. Smalley and Diana Winston
6. Practicing gratitude
There’s a bit of overlap between meditation and gratitude, but I do both distinctly in my morning routine. I’ll meditate first and then close with prayer, where I focus on gratitude and verbalize all the things in life I have to be thankful for.
You can choose if prayer is how you want to express your gratitude or not, but I find this activity to be one of my most valuable. We spend so much of our day focused on the small things that matter only to ourselves that it’s difficult to keep perspective.
The world exists beyond us, beyond our problems. Take some time to really appreciate that, and use that broader perspective to take stock of how fortunate you are. If able to read this sentence, in at least one way you’re better off than the four billion people who don’t have internet. Carve out just a minute or two each day to say out loud what you’re grateful for.
7. Connecting with loved ones
It might seem odd to have this as a daily habit, but I can’t stress its value enough. Before my divorce, I spoke to my parents maybe once every month or two. It was only after my divorce that I realized what I was missing.
Yes, family can be difficult or awkward. Maybe you have a different definition of family than I do. Bottom line: there are people that have love for you, and you can be closer to them if you choose to.
My challenge to you is to set a time each day when you step away from the rat race and give them a call, a text, anything. Practice just making the time and then practice truly connecting. Try to really show up and share what’s going on with you. Challenge them to do the same.
8. Being social (or not)
When I was at my lowest, I made it a point to connect with both family and friends daily. For me, it was a bright line. I had my family, who loved me unconditionally, and I had my friends, who I would grab a beer with and just have a chat. The latter was important to me because it shook up my day and was fun.
We get different energy from different people. Forget the labels of family and friends for a minute. Those labels might not work for you. This habit is all about recharging. Find the people who recharge you and connect with them daily. Even if it’s not face-to-face.
A final note: some of us spend our day surrounded by friends but really just need a break. If you recharge by being alone, that’s your mission. You owe no apologies or explanations, to others or to yourself, if you just need to block 30 minutes of the day to be peacefully alone.
9. Daily affirmations
I used to have this as a daily part of my morning routine, but recently I’ve replaced it with guided meditation. But boy was it there when I needed it.
Daily affirmations are a chance to look in the mirror and give yourself a message you need. It’s a powerful tool because it’s an unfamiliar perspective. We’re not used to addressing ourselves out loud. My first affirmation was a simple phrase: “I love you.” It was something I was wrestling with at a core level, and looking into my own eyes and saying it out loud was more than uncomfortable. It made me tear up, and I was moved in a way I wasn’t expecting.
I recommend using a daily affirmation as a morning routine, and keeping it relatively short. Experiment with the pronouns — try “I” instead of “you” and vice versa. Check out this article for a list of 35 ideas to start you off.
10. Daily planning
Productivity is a huge topic, but put that away for now. If we think about living a more deliberate life and making conscious choices, a little planning can go a long way. This isn’t about getting more stuff done in a day. That might be a nice side effect, but not what we’re going for.
Imagine a day when you’re running from fire to fire, scrambling to do enough, and anxiously checking email. Now imagine that you sit down for 10 minutes before anything happens, collect your thoughts on everything that needs to be done, and thoughtfully choose which to do today.
Clarity, focus, and ownership of the day. There are a hundred ways to plan the day, just find what works for you and be consistent in making time for it. If you need a starting point, start simple. Make a few categories of things to do, fill in all actions you can take, and circle the three to do today.
11. Learning and growth
There are a ton of great writers on Medium that can help you learn new skills. Danny Forest for one. The point here isn’t what you’re learning, but that you are learning.
Again, if you treat yourself like you matter then eventually you’ll start to believe it, too. On days when I invest myself, I feel strong. I feel accomplished. And I feel good because I’ve done something for me.
Have something you can do each day that grows you as a person. Since we’re talking habits, be sure to keep it small. But something that you can commit to for a long enough time to be consistent. If you don’t have that one thing, or you have multiple things, then dedicate a set time each day to personal growth.
Right now, I have a few things going. I’m using the app Busuu to learn German four days a week and on the other days I write. I’m also constantly doing work to develop my coaching craft. What would fulfill and grow you?
12. Finding joy
Last but not least, find something that brings you joy. Maybe it’s a passion project. Maybe it’s the same thing as your learning and growth habit, but maybe it’s different. For me, I play the guitar. It’s my zen activity.
The objective of this habit is enjoyment. To take a break from the rest of the day and just do something you love. It shouldn’t be something you force yourself to do, but something you force yourself to make time for. It’s a subtle but important difference. Find something that brings you joy and give yourself the gift of making space for it in your day.
Making your habits stick
I’ll be writing a dedicated article to making habits stick soon, so I’ll be brief. First things first, don’t choose all 12! The goal here is to build a plan you can accomplish. When it comes to building habits, research shows that failing continually at as a task is worse than not trying. So think big, but start small.
In designing a habit, follow the SMART framework: simple, measurable, appropriate, realistic, and time-bound.
Make it simple enough to understand and measurable enough to know when you’ve done it. “Eat more fruit” is okay. “Eat one apple each day” is better.
Make sure the habit is appropriate to you, meaning that it’s actually something that you want or gives you benefit, Make sure it’s realistic enough to do every day. And where possible, make it time-bound. Set a time in the calendar to do it and give yourself a set amount of time to get it done.
Once you decide on what you really want to bring into your daily life, the next step is to operationalize it.
This means defining a process that helps you stick to the plan. I started off last year with tracking all my activities in a spreadsheet. This worked, but only because I was really motivated to follow them.
I decided in the new year that it was too cumbersome to keep doing, so I researched the best apps to help stick to my daily habits. Some of the best lists I found here and here. In the end, I tried five:
After experimenting with each, I found Streaks was closest to what I needed. It was easy to set my tasks and easy to customize notifications. I love the simplicity and integration into my phone and I’ve used it every day this year. More importantly, I haven’t missed any of my habits yet. This was my screen today:
Daily habits are not just for daily benefits. Yes, it’s great to feel recharged and balanced throughout the day. But there will always be bad days. Building in a routine like this is fuel for the bad days, it’s something to hold onto.
Daily habits tie into bigger outcomes. It’s a foundation that allows us to be more in control, making more conscious choices. We’re a product of our environment, and can choose to design our environments better.
If we don’t, the daily noise work and our responsibilities will decide what’s important. It will decide how we grow.
Build yourself a few powerful habits and take responsibility of your journey! And as always, let me know how it goes.
Originally published in The Ascent