By Tiago Forte of Forte Labs
Reading classics like Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird and William Zinsser’s On Writing Well, I was surprised to learn that writing, real writing, is not about a flash of divine inspiration. It turns out the muse is a serial procrastinator. A serious writer sees their work instead as a daily discipline, whether or not they feel like it.
Or as Stephen King puts it, “Amateurs sit and wait for inspiration, the rest of us just get up and go to work.”
I had to learn a whole new set of writing habits to get that book out the door. I needed a tool for overcoming what Steven Pressfield calls the “resistance” encountered by every creative person when they sit down to work.
Until you develop these habits, writing a book seems, and is, impossible. Once you have them, it is inevitable. And it’s the same for every big goal you have.
Soon afterward, serving as a Peace Corps volunteer in Eastern Ukraine, I used habits in my study of the Russian language: 5 new flashcards every day, studied and sorted by recall speed for later review.
By the time I left 2 years later, I had memorized 3,000 Russian words, tested out at an Intermediate Advanced fluency level, and been interviewed in Russian on national Ukrainian TV.
My education in habit formation continued when I returned to the U.S. I started work at a design consultancy in San Francisco, where we helped create products and services explicitly designed to influence people’s behavior. I read everything I could find on persuasive technology, decision theory, UX design, participatory action research, and applied behavioral science — all building blocks of what has now emerged as the field of behavior design.
I continued trying what I was learning in my own life, finding the power of habits everywhere I looked: in productivity, creativity, company culture, friendships, hobbies, conversations, chores. I felt like I had discovered a secret weapon, and people often remarked on my impressive dedication and self-discipline. But what looked like self-discipline on the outside was in reality just the mundane ability to keep chipping away at small habits over long periods of time.
The real test came when I quit my consulting job and started Forte Labs. I had very little savings, a lot of student debt, and no clients or revenue to speak of. I was starting at a standstill on a short runway.
I knew that I desperately needed to recreate the structure that a workplace had provided up to that point. I needed to plan my routines to avoid what I knew was a great risk: that I would putter around for a few months chasing down fruitless leads and working on questionable projects, only to end up exhausted, broke, and with nothing to show for it but a gaping hole in my resume.
I started with the basics. I would wake up, work, eat, exercise, and go to sleep at set times, even when no one was enforcing them. I didn’t always stick to it perfectly, but this schedule ensured that I would put in the hours day after day, week after week, even when I didn’t feel inspired. I decided that my work was a daily discipline, and I would treat it like one.
The work itself also depended on habits. I “automated” the unpleasant administrative tasks I knew needed to be done, processing them in big batches to minimize the time it took. I created routines to make sure I was keeping up on new developments in my field, to spend time on both “important” and “urgent” tasks, and to create a workflow that tracked the extremely diverse responsibilities I took on as a sole founder.
It turned out that my problem was the opposite than the one I expected: it was difficult for me to pull myself away from work I cared about. But habits helped here as well. Establishing what Tony Schwartz calls “positive energy rituals” like meditation, home-cooked meals, and mandatory rest days helped me maintain balance when I was tempted to fire on all cylinders for too long.
Slowly but surely, consistency turned into momentum, and that momentum has done things I never could have achieved through sheer force of will. It helped me build a business that has served over 10,000 people, online and in person, as well as multinational companies, government agencies, and startup incubators. I still have a long way to go, but I’ve taken the first steps toward building a sustainable business and, more importantly, a sustainable life.
Have I achieved complete mastery over my behavior? Absolutely not. In fact, this type of rigid control is exactly the opposite of what we’re looking for when we create habits. I mess up constantly, but I have learned that there is a different story I can tell myself about these failures. I can choose to interpret them as data points in my experiments, not evidence of fatal character flaws.
In talking to many people about productivity, entrepreneurship, and learning, it’s become increasingly clear that habit formation is the best-kept-secret key to success. When we hear the stories of successful people we look up to, we only hear about the flash of insight, the stroke of luck, or the moment of genius; almost never about the daily rituals that made those moments possible, or inevitable.
Habits are not as sexy as the most recent productivity trend, but they are other things: solid, powerful, compounding. Like a deep ocean tide, they operate in secret but can reach immense scale, moving mountains of water across the oceans while we play with our toys on the surface.
Working with my clients to improve their productivity, I’ve noticed again and again that what most people (even very successful people) lack is not the Why — they believe deeply in what they’re trying to achieve. And it isn’t the What — they know what goals and milestones they need to reach.
What they lack is the How. They lack a system for translating their goals into concrete daily actions. They lack the ability to design their own habits.
Because the truth is that even when you know exactly what you need to do, you simply do not have enough willpower to go around. You can never summon enough self-control to maintain and expand your progress in every area of your life, simultaneously, incessantly, forever. Your brain comes with a built-in autopilot — doesn’t it seem smart to learn how to program this autopilot to go where you want?
I created Design Your Habits because I want people to succeed. I want them to finish what they start, to make things, to do work they give a shit about. We don’t need more motivational slogans or good advice; we need practical, effective systems for changing our behavior and reaching our goals. And these systems need to also keep us balanced, healthy, and mindful enough to enjoy those achievements, otherwise we are just on a new and faster hamster wheel.
I sincerely hope it gives you a new perspective on success, one that is more humane and realistic. Much more importantly, I hope it gives you a set of practical tools that you can put to use today.Subscribe to Praxis, our members-only blog exploring the future of productivity, for just $10/month. Or follow us for free content via email, Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn, or YouTube.