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Habits Are Footpaths, Not Sidewalks

I've invested a lot of time into learning about how to form habits to make the most efficient use of my time. About a year ago I stopped looking at habits as sidewalks and started thinking about them as footpaths, making them much easier for me to adopt. I'll explain.

I had been meeting regularly with Sam Elmore, a consultant I've gotten to know over the past few years, to talk through a variety of things including my desire to reduce stress in my life. I was frustrated with the trouble I was having building good habits around work routines, household chores, exercise, self reflection, and the like.

I had failed at implementing the Getting Things Done system, for instance. Having read the book more than once, all I had managed to do regularly was to use the Two Minute Rule, which hardly changed my life. The author had provided a blueprint for success that was easy to understand yet I failed to build a habit from it.

Sam's observed that I had been evaluating things as success or failure in strictly binary terms and submitted that a different perspective may be useful. He helped me think of forming habits the way that I might wear a footpath through a field. While it'd be ideal to walk the path every day, missing a day here or there wouldn't be the end of the world. Even the occasional walk is valuable, as it takes more than a few days for a footpath to get overgrown again.

Looking back at my original perspective, I realize now that I had been thinking of building habits as I might build a sidewalk. Use a blueprint, buy the right tools, let the concrete dry, and walk it from point A to B more efficiently than ever. Using this framework to evaluate success and failure, however, made me give up trying more often than not.

A daily habit completed 4 out of 7 days, for instance, was a failure; a partially built sidewalk isn't quite a sidewalk. Thinking about how walking through a field 4 out of 7 days would eventually wear a footpath, however, kept me motivated to come back for more, even if a day or two was missed here and there.

This perspective is especially helpful in the context of implementing processes for a growing team. It's rare to get every member to agree on whether or not a process should be implemented, or how or how often something should be done, let alone actually implementing it. There's some pretty interesting reading on how sidewalks are being planned in city parks and on college campuses (preview: they're not planned at all).

I've managed to use this analogy to help me build most of the habits that I've set my mind to. In writing this post I'm taking steps (pun intended) towards building a weekly writing habit. It'll be that much better if it helps you build a habit of your own!