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When you realize that you have many bad or mediocre habits that are holding you back in life, you may start to feel overwhelmed. Where should you begin? Should you upgrade your health habits? Attempt a 30-day supertrial? Commit to working an hour a day on your online business?
Here’s a simple heuristic that will help you identify which habits to change first:
Add the best. Drop the worst.
Let’s start with the first part.
Can you identify some of the absolute best habits you could add to your life, such that if you maintained these habits every day for the next 20 years, it would make a huge difference in your results?
Go ahead and brainstorm a few ideas. Jot them down. You don’t need a lot — a small handful of ideas is fine.
Now is there a certain idea that pops out at you? It may be on your short list, or you may come up with a new idea.
This is probably an idea that you fear, at least a little, but it will also be the idea that excites you the most when you think about the long-term results. If you added this one habit to your life and truly mastered it, it would trump all the others. If you could only install one new permanent habit, this would be it.
What is it?
And don’t give me that “I don’t know” crap. If you don’t know, then put your brain to the task and figure it out.
Of course you can’t really know which single habit is the absolute best. You don’t know what the future will bring, so you can’t know which habit will be best suited to your future growth and results. But surely you can make an educated guess.
And if you can’t even guess, then I’ll tell you what to use. Start drinking one quart of fresh juice every day. I like carrot-celery-cucumber-apple-kale-parsley-ginger-lime. It has to be fresh — none of that store-bought stuff. Drink it on an empty stomach.
Seriously, if your mind is too foggy to think clearly about this, it’s a safe bet your diet sucks (processed foods really cloud up the brain), so I’d start with an upgrade there if I were you.
Your Worst Habit
Next, use a similar process to identify your single worst habit.
What is that one nasty habit, that if you could somehow drop it from your life permanently, it would make a huge difference in your results over the next 20 years?
What one problem behavior keeps biting you again and again?
Is drinking soda making you fat, foggy, and anxious? Does checking email more than once a day kill your productivity? Are you wasting way too much time watching TV?
What habit seems to be slowing you down more than any other? Which one would you be overjoyed to finally be rid of?
A decent choice here is to pick the worst food (or class of foods) that you know has been hurting your ability to enjoy high energy, good mental focus, and deep concentration.
Choose Crisp and Clear Habits
Don’t make these habits complicated or vague. Choose simple habits with clear and crisp boundaries.
So don’t pick procrastinating as your bad habit and being more productive as your good habit… or overeating as the bad and eating healthier as the good. What do those things even mean? How do you measure success vs. failure? These choices are meaningless. If you picked something like that, you’re being stupid, so stop it!
Don’t be stupid here. Be down to earth and specific. When you choose a specific habit, there will be a clear and sharp dividing line between success and failure. Either you did the action or you didn’t. There’s no gray area in the middle.
Choose a bad habit like consuming coffee and a good habit like getting up at 5am every morning. These are clear, specific, and easy to measure. Either you drank some coffee in a day, or you had none. Either you’re up and on your feet at 5:00 am, or you aren’t.
If you had a sip of coffee or a chocolate-covered espresso bean, you failed. If you had no coffee whatsoever in a day, you succeeded. That’s crisp and clear.
If you hit the snooze and got up at 5:10am, you failed. If you’re vertical before the clock hits 5:01 am, you succeeded. No room for doubt.
That fuzzy gray zone between success and failure is the death of many would-be habit changes. Don’t waste your time in that space. That is the zone of pretenders and wannabes.
If it makes sense to do so, choose related habits, such that your worst habit to drop and your best habit to add are two sides of the same coin. For instance, stop drinking soda, and drink a quart of green juice every day instead. This isn’t essential, but it does make the process of change a little easier if you can pair up habits like this.
Begin a 30-Day Trial
Now that you have your two habits, and you’ve vetted them for clarity and crispness (and lack of stupidity), you’re ready to get started. Begin by kicking off a 30-day trial of both habits simultaneously.
Technically you’re doing two overlapping trials together. One trial is to drop your worst habit, and the other is to add your best habit.
Use the process described in the article Habit Change Is Like Chess to set yourself up for success. Do what it takes to handle the early game, middle game, and endgame as you transition from the old behaviors to the new ones.
Don’t look back. Once you’ve locked in these habits, repeat the process. Seek out your new worst habit and your new potential best habit. Then recondition those as a pair too.
You may have been lucky, finding yourself blessed with an assortment of positive habits that have served you well throughout your life, but most likely you still have a collection of time-wasting, energy-draining, soul-sucking behaviors that you’d be delighted to dump. No matter what your starting point is, you can always continue to apply the “add the best; drop the worst” heuristic. Even good habits can be replaced by great ones.