Cultivate Habits, Not Tasks

on Feb 12, 2015

Especially in my professional career as a software developer, I am a task completer. I sit down (or stand) at the computer, open my project management software, and start plowing through tasks. This works well because there is a tangible penalty for not completing tasks…losing my job. When you voluntarily undertake learning a skill like speaking a language, golfing, or playing guitar, the only penalty is not progressing. So how in the realm of self-improvement, lacking some intrinsic, inexplicable motivation, do we progress in our learning endeavors? Instead of merely completing tasks, we must cultivate habits.

Habits are interesting animals. Why do I now have no trouble remembering to take my thyroid medication every morning when for years it was a constant battle? How did my wife drop an extreme Diet Coke habit while I continue to struggle with mine? What makes me want to go out for a run around noon several days a week? Positive or negative in its impact on you, once entrenched, a habit is hard to break. The real question is how do you establish a positive habit on your path to skill acquisition?

Not so long ago, I was out-of-shape, frequently sick, weak, and generally unhappy with myself. Just 3 years prior, I was playing tennis several times a week and although mildly overweight, I was reasonably athletic.

Breaking my ankle changed that. I went from a 180 lb. tennis player, to a 200+ lb. couch potato in just a few months.

Broken Ankle

My Broken Ankle in 2009

It wasn’t until 2010, when we moved houses for the second time in 4 years, that I realized just how far I had fallen. Struggling with weight was really nothing new to me, but during the move, I realized I was weak. I couldn’t lift furniture that 4 years earlier didn’t bother me in the least. My ankle wasn’t even the problem even though it was pretty pathetic in its own right. The problem was me, all of me.

I had dropped tennis as a habit and cultivated poor eating and tv watching habits in its place. I had allowed my ankle injury to sideline every aspect of my health and fitness.

The real trigger to my transformation from middle-aged sloth to runner was a decision to cultivate one habit in particular: skipping breakfast.

Alright, alright, calm down. Breakfast is, of course, the most important meal of the day whichever way you slice it. I just think it’s the most important meal of the day to skip. We can argue the benefits of various eating plans later (pictures and data will prove you wrong, btw), but for now, let’s just focus on habits.

So, for 2 weeks, the only change I made to my health and fitness routine was skipping breakfast. The goal was to get myself on a 16/8 daily eating schedule to experiment with the diet and workout plans of Martin Berkhan of Lean Gains. The problem was sticking to the 16 hours of not eating.

I had previously experimented with 24 hour periods of fasting to improve my fitness, and they contributed greatly to my moderate level of fitness prior to my ankle break. The problem was that you just had to decide not to eat and do it. It was a serious test of willpower not just in ignoring hunger but in weaving through awkward social situations. You never realize how much of your life revolves around food until you decide not to participate.

Do you know what it’s like coming up on 24 hours of not eating and making a peanut butter sandwich for your kids? It made me want to eat everything in sight, and I despise peanut butter.

Long periods of fasting just weren’t reducible to a reasonable habit, in my opinion. I know they work for some people, but it wasn’t for me.

The Lean Gains plan of eating within an 8 hour window, daily sounded much better to me. So that was my focus. I worked on nothing but holding off on eating until at least noon everyday. It didn’t take too long before my stomach got on board and decided a morning meal just wasn’t necessary.

Once that habit was in place, I added more habits….weights 3x per week, running 2-3x per week, cycling, swimming…the list keeps growing. It all started with that one, simple change in habit, though.  For two weeks, I will not eat breakfast. Those 2 weeks, helped me accomplish this:


My Fitness Transformation

Two weeks of one small daily change took me from 200+ lbs, sick, out-of-shape, and weak to 165 lbs and healthy. Apparently it also moved a lot of hair from my head to my face, but I really don’t think that had anything to do with habits. Anyway, moving on…

I lost approximately half of my body fat going from upwards of 20% to 10% or less. I’m not going to say it was an easy or a direct path, but for the most part, it all started with that one small daily change.

So how do we apply that to language learning?

For me, that one simple habit I’m trying to cultivate is flashcards. When I get up in the morning, I run through my flashcards. Before I go to bed at night, I run through my flashcards.

Yesterday I skipped my morning study and was sitting around at the end of the day frustrated with my freshly sprained ankle, considering skipping my evening study. Something made me pick up my phone and start running flashcards. I fell asleep several times and didn’t finish all of them, but this morning, I woke up, got my son ready for school, and started right back into my flashcard study.

The goal now is to cultivate other good habits on my road to Chinese fluency in the same way that strength training and running followed my simple diet habit.

So that’s my recommendation to you. Pick one thing. It doesn’t matter how small it is.  In fact, the smaller it is, the better. Make that one small change for a few weeks, and see if you can make it a habit. See if more habits follow until you have a snowball of habits leading toward your ultimate goal.