13 Excellent Habits That I've Kind of Learned

I was so mad that I cried. I had built a chair that wouldn't stand up. It had everything a chair needs: 3 legs (albeit of different lengths and positioned randomly), a seat (a square piece of plywood), and a nail to fasten each leg to the seat. I was maybe ten years old.

My mom still mentions that story once every few years. I was a perfectionist back then, before I got lazy and easily satisfied. I was certain that my chair would work, and I had intended to gift it to my dad (as I vaguely recall). Alas it was not meant to be.

I had no idea what I was doing beyond "building a chair." I didn't know the principles involved. Worse yet, I thought that I knew; I brought "second order incompetence" to the table... er... chair. Having failed, I blamed the "stupid chair" and abandoned furniture making forever.

In the end (a) I didn't have a working chair and (b) I was unhappy. The reason? I was not tooled for the job.

Life has turned out to be a lot like that. I turned 18 on my high school graduation day. Both by age and social reckoning I was an adult. Ha! Again I found myself inadequately tooled for the job.

A few years--err--decades later I have figured out a few things. Some of them I have mastered--others I am still working on. (If I left out your favorites, feel free to mention them in the comments.)

1. Be happy. This is supreme. If life has a purpose (and I believe it does) then being happy must be central to it. Being happy is hard for most people. Some confuse happiness with pleasure. Others think happiness is not their lot in life. Most people who are unhappy don't know the root cause. Figuring that out and fixing it should be priority 1. If you're unhappy, get happy as quickly as possible.

Look at me--I'm happy...

2. Eliminate stress. Stress prevents happiness. Not all stress, mind you, but the kind that weakens you or leaves you with dull, pervasive of anxiety. The kind that makes you avoid the solution, only to get more stress. If you have that kind of stress, you can't be happy. That kind of stress doesn't give way to emancipating accomplishments. It just sits in your stomach generating acid. You have to get rid of it to be happy. Get help if you need it.

3. Get sufficient, regular sleep. People don't sleep well for many reasons. Stress (#2), entertainment, work, apnea, insomnia, and physical ailments all threaten sleep. If you don't sleep regularly and sufficiently, you cannot be healthy and you won't be happy. (I know because I tried it during a decade of encroaching sleep apnea, which I finally remedied surgically.) Sleeping well, however, is strong medicine. Some benefits include:

  • losing weight
  • thinking better
  • reducing headaches and other pains
  • preventing or shortening illness
  • reducing stress.
If you aren't getting enough sleep, nothing else will go right. Fix it today.

4. Be healthy and fit. Along with getting enough sleep, being healthy and fit is necessary to be happy and productive. If you've ever gone from being a slob to being healthy and fit, you understand the qualitative difference. (Ask me how I know.) You might feel like you're doing well even though you're overweight, badly nourished, and out of shape, but you're nowhere near your potential. Life with out sore knees, injuries, and root canals is bliss compared to life with them.

5. Fix yourself. Finding the root cause of unhappiness requires being open to the truth. The truth is that you are the reason for most of your unhappiness. Many people see themselves in terms of what others do to them or what happens to them. They fall back on "why me?" Here's the good news: if you're in debt, unemployed, on the verge of divorce, and watching your kids meltdown, congratulations! You might be humble enough to explore yourself honestly. It's not easy. In fact it's brutal. Still, frank introspection during this time will empower you to improve your emotional, psychological, and spiritual health. If you make the most of it, you won't find yourself back in this position again later. For those who haven't hit bottom, don't wait until you get there. If something isn't right in your life, fix yourself. You can't fix the world, and even if you could, you're probably the one who needs fixing anyway.

6. Meditate daily. For life to be meaningful, you need to improve constantly. Maybe you need to develop better character (we all do), be a better spouse or parent, or improve your employment. Perhaps you just need to keep your brain lubricated or understand the world around you better. In any case, make time daily to ponder on the weighty matters of your life. Record your best thoughts and try to act on them. Don't live a static life. You'll regret it later.

7. Don't confuse your ideal with your benchmark. This is where I've been very weak until just a couple of years ago. I have been very into #5 and #6 for over a decade. The problem was that every time I found a solution to some life problem, I started setting goals. (I wrote previously about why this is a bad idea.) I would expect myself suddenly to live according to my new ideal, as if my capacity would magically, instantly increase. When my prevailing habits and weaknesses prevented me from instamagically performing at that new, ideal level, it was like building my chair all over again. Discouragement and frustration would set in, and I would "fail." These days, when I see a life tweak that will make me happier, I factor it into the direction that I've set for myself, so that it will become part of my long-term lifestyle instead of a short-lived goal. If you know where you want to go, give yourself time to walk or run there. Don't insist on tele-porting.

8. Respond rather than react. So if I were Goliath, this would be the stone embedded in my forehead. Reacting involves testosterone, adrenaline, your brain stem, and your major muscle groups. It requires no consideration and is tactical in the extreme. It doesn't factor in everything that needs to be factored in. Trust me, I know. When your pupils have dilated and your heart rate has increased, be quiet and take your hands off of the keyboard. As my grandfather used to say, "Put it in your hat for two weeks." Then, if it's worthwhile, respond. Responding, not reacting, will bring your full analytic and intuitive powers to bear on your situation. You'll win respect and probably get the results you want.

Goliath never perfected "bullet time."

9. Treat everyone the same. Living in Korea has made this more obvious to me. Even more than in the US, people here give great deference to people higher than themselves in the food chain, while neglecting people "beneath" them. You cannot be happy if you don't treat people as people. What goes around will come around. The more attention you get from people north of you, the more attention you should pay to people south of you. Otherwise you're a beggar. You can be a beggar or you can be a benefactor--your choice. If you chose to treat people badly because you think that they're not as important as you are, life will make you pay for it someday. My grandfather used to tell me that in life "there are givers and there are takers." I feel very fortunate to say that I did not learn this the hard way.

10. Read. Spend time reading things that will improve and inform you. My most recent boss, Dan Case, had an evil trick. He would put a book that he thought I needed to read on his desk. When I came into his office, he would be "busy" for a few minutes, so I would have time to rifle through the stuff on his desk. I always ended up "borrowing" the book that he had planted there. Even once I found out what he was up to, I would still go along with it because it was the best mentoring I've ever had. The books he tricked me into reading honed my mind and shaped my character. From him I learned to read as a primary means of fixing myself. (See #5.)

11. Prize the early morning hours. Learn how to go to bed early and capitalize on the hours between 6 am and 9 am. You will be king of all you survey. (Make sure you get enough sleep though--go to bed early. See #3.) My dad told me years ago that these are the productive hours of the day. He was right. Most of my peers work from 9 to whatever, which gives me three hours to get the jump on them. After that, it's the corporate distraction machine.

12. Say and do important things. I learned this from James Lukaszewski's book. (It was one of my boss Dan's cunning plants.) People spend most of their time doing stuff that doesn't matter and then chattering about it. If you say and do important things, you get results and respect. Initially this means you'll be quiet and idle because you're usual agenda is stupid and useless. Then you'll figure out that you have a main event every day that will make you succeed even if you don't do anything else. Focus on that. I talked more about this idea in my review of "The 4-hour Workweek."

13. Embrace "No." Two letters can free you from the Matrix. By learning how to say "no" you can eliminate most or all of your effort that doesn't actually produce value. "No" takes a lot of forms. Sometimes in involves delegation. Other times it involves postponing. Often, though, it just involves saying "no" (in the most appropriate way possible). You can't say and do important things until you learn how to embrace "no." It's better to spend an hour figuring out how to say "no" than it is to spend that same hour doing stupid work. At least you will have developed your ability to say "no." Say "no" to 80 percent of the stuff that comes your way, and you'll be much more successful and have much less stress. (See #2.) Nothing bad will happen as a result. Try it.

So those are some of the tools that I wish I had acquired before I became a "grown-up." They've served me very well to the extent that I've incorporated them into my life. I never have gone back and tried to build a chair. I think I might just do that. With four legs. No nails. Maybe a back.

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