I’m not a big movie guy, but I liked Limitless.
In it, Bradley Cooper’s character discovers a drug called NZT which allows him to access 100% of his brain, giving him incredible powers of focus, perception, and creativity.
Under its influence, he plays life at a higher level, excelling in everything from cleaning his apartment to his career as a writer, to forecasting stock patterns, to fighting, to conversation, to languages.
When I watched it, I couldn’t help but fantasize about what it would be like to have such immense control of the latent powers in one’s brain and body. But of course, it’s just make-believe, right?
Not so fast …
Friends, I have found the way to become limitless.
And, good news, it’s pretty simple.
It’s not as sexy or simple as a little clear pill, but it doesn’t feel like much more effort than taking one. Plus, it has a minor advantage over NZT, in that it doesn’t lead to life-devastating addiction and murder like in the film. Plus no crash later. (And nope, it’s not 5-Hour Energy.)
Before I hype it up too much, let me say this. What I’m talking about takes time. And actual work. But it’s not hard work; it’s actually enjoyable. With enough time and consistent, small effort, I expect the results to compound and grow exponentially, to leave me — and anyone else who uses it — completely transformed, from the inside out.
It’s about engineering your habits
Habit is a cable; we weave a thread of it each day and at last we cannot break it.
– Horace Mann
For most of my adult life, I’ve enjoyed personal development books and programs. But over the past few years, I slowed down in my consumption of them. They simply ceased to motivate me the way they once had.
What’s more, I had begun to believe that my own ability to execute on ideas had dwindled to almost nothing.
It had. I understood that small actions, taken every single day, become powerful habits which dictate the results we get from life. And while I came to appreciate discipline as the skill necessary to engineer habits, I felt that I had none.
One day, I might decide to stop drinking coffee. I’d go two or three days without, then find an excuse to drink it again.
A few weeks later, I’d decide that I was going to start writing every day. Or running every day. Or reading or saving money or playing chess or keeping a clean workspace or following a schedule or walking my dogs more or checking email less.
I’d decide to change something (or usually, many things at once) and implement it immediately. I’d tell myself that from this point forward, things would be different. I would be different.
And invariably, I’d quit the next week, disheartened and frustrated. So I’d try harder next time, with more ambitious goals, more changes to make, only to fail again.
What was I doing wrong? Was I really this powerless? Was this just a fact of adult life, that real responsibilities, a family, and bills to pay simply must render one inept at changing?
If you can’t spot what I was doing wrong, you’re doing it wrong too
Over the past four months, I’ve changed more things in my life and had greater control over my actions than ever before. The results are snowballing, and it feels like I’m only gaining momentum. And because of some of the changes I’ve made, like getting up earlier, I have more time than ever to change even more things.
I discovered the fatal flaw in my approach. It was my very enthusiasm to change which undermined my efforts to do so.
The ingredient I was missing was patience.
I didn’t discover this on my own — I don’t think that would have been possible, since each failure only led to my doubling down the next time to make up for it.
Instead, I learned about it last June, at the first-ever World Domination Summit in Portland. There, I heard Leo Babauta (author of the aforelinkedto Zen Habits) speak.
In my notes from his talk, I wrote these words:
One change at a time. Five minutes at first.
Never before had I encountered these ideas. I had read many times that I needed to develop discipline, and that my habits would come to define me. And yet I had never learned how to change a habit.
All of my life, especially recently, every attempt I had made to change my habits had been a dramatic one. And in concert with others, so that each time, what I was planning was nothing short of a life overhaul.
But you’d never try to run 10 miles on your first day back after a long layoff; you know that it takes time to regain your fitness, and that doing too much could lead to injury or burnout. Same with the gym — you don’t go in on Day 1 and try to bench twice your weight.
And yet that’s exactly the way I had tried to change my habits. My “change muscles” were extremely weak from lack of use, and I was blowing them out on the first day by attempting too much, too soon.
Every single time.
Change just one habit a month, and in three years you’ll have 36 new habits.
I wish I could say I took Leo’s advice then and there. Had I summoned the patience to change just one habit every month or two, and not take on another until the first felt effortless, I’d be writing this post last summer instead of now.
But instead, I listened to the voice in my head that said, “Sure, everyone else should take a whole month for each new habit, but not you. You can handle more.”
This, despite a good three years of evidence to the contrary.
I went home, put forth a halfhearted effort to restrain myself from attempting too many changes at once, and soon was back to my old ways.
What it took for me to start listening to Leo’s advice was to put my money on the line (a powerful motivator), and to hearing the message about three more times. I joined Leo’s Sea Change program as soon as he opened it this February: the point was that members would create habits using the skills Leo taught. As a group, but also on our own.
The twenty dollars I spent to join (and each twenty every month after that) could very well be the best money I’ve ever spent. What changed everything for me was the understanding that even if I just created one new habit each month, in three years I’d have 36 new habits.
I would be transformed, unrecognizable in my discipline, my actions, and my results. So began my slow, but steady, progression of change.
9 habits I’ve changed in less than four months
In Month 1, we created the habit of meditation. We started with just five minutes each day — not 30, as would have been my natural inclination — and focused on that one habit only. Nothing else.
After a week or so, it became 10 minutes per day, and by the end of the month my half hour of daily meditation was automatic.
Meditation had always been interesting to me (and something I’d been unsuccessful at sticking to on my own), so I was happy to create that habit. But infinitely more valuable than the mindfulness that has resulted from meditation was the experience of creating just one habit for one month, starting with just five minutes.
Finally, I had proof that I could create a habit. And a formula by which to do it.
In the next month, March, I added reading to my new stable of healthy habits. Just a little bit each day, gradually increasing to half an hour each day, and sometimes more. I’ve always loved reading and called myself a reader. The difference is now I do it.
In April, my family moved to Asheville, I chose an easier habit — flossing my teeth. A simple thing, sure, but another thread added to the cable (and better breath to boot). I found this two-minute habit so easy that the second half of the month, I started making my bed each day, after learning from Gretchen Rubin (in a Sea Change webinar) that this seemingly inconsequential habit was one factor linked to happiness for a lot of people.
All of these habits were easy to start, and that was intentional. Just like you learn to run a few miles before you train to run a marathon. Small, easy changes at first.
But with stronger discipline muscles and some confidence in my skills, I started experimenting with more frequent additions of tougher habits — not simultaneous like before, but separated by only a week or two.
In the last week of April, I started replacing daily coffee with green tea. I’m down to drinking coffee just once per week, and that’s where I plan to stay. I don’t want to kick coffee out of my life; I just don’t want to need it every day.
On May 1, I started getting up earlier. This was a habit that Leo suggested we not try at first because of its difficulty, but I felt ready. Three weeks later, I’m getting up an hour earlier each day than I was before, and I’m excited to get out of bed.
Next, I decided to eliminate a bad habit, another challenge that Leo recommended waiting until we had developed some skill before attempting. (Replacing coffee with tea was sort of a warmup.) And so I quit biting my fingernails, a habit that has been a part of me for twenty years, by substituting five mindful breaths each time I have the urge. It’s now been two weeks, and my hands look nicer than they have in years.
The next week, I started practicing music more seriously. One of the nice things about our new home is that I can play my drumset in the basement without much sound escaping the house to bother neighbors (haven’t yet figured out how not to bother Erin, but my son loves playing with me). I had been playing on and off since we moved — the first time since college, really — but finally I took a few steps to make this into a real habit. So I’m up to a half hour a day with that, sometimes mixing in guitar or violin when I want a break from the drums.
And last week I began daily exercise. Certainly this was far easier for me than it would be for someone who has never exercised in their life. But far too often since I moved, with all the fun things to do in my new city, I was going three or four days in a row without doing anything physical. So in the hour that I’m awake before everyone else, running (and some pushups, pullups, and situps) is what I do.
Even with this, a habit I know well and am comfortable with, I started with just 20 minutes. It’s tough to resist the urge to do more, but I’ve learned how important that is. To leave yourself craving more is a sure way to frame your new habit as something to look forward to, rather than a burden.
When I started all of this, I wrote down a list of 10 good habits I’d like to start, and five bad ones I’d like to break. I’ve knocked out half of that list already, not even four months in.
I’m sure as I push the limits of what I can handle, I’ll stumble. I’ll probably get too confident, take on too much at once, and fail at a habit or two. But with the knowledge of what’s going on, I think I’ll be able to make adjustments to learn just how often I can introduce new habits — as well as when it’s time to rest and enjoy the changes I’ve made, rather than always focusing on new ones.
What’s really intriguing is what will come next — once I’ve tackled all the high-priority habits that sprung to mind in that brainstorm, are there others I haven’t dared to dream of because they seemed frivolous or unrealistic? Perhaps these are the ones that will matter the most.
Time will tell. The potential for change feels, well, limitless.
I know I’ve written more about myself in this post than I usually do on this blog. But I hope you see that I didn’t write this just for me. Mainly, I just hope to get across this simple yet so counter-intuitive idea that if you’ve failed at creating changes in your life like I had, trying harder and going bigger is the opposite of what you need to do.
Instead, have the patience to focus on just one thing. For just five minutes. And go from there.
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