The Easy Way to Set Simple Habits That will Change Your Life and Work
Before I write this piece on how to set simple habits, I just really need to preface:
I am hesitant to write this piece because I worry about it being just another piece of ‘productivity porn.’
You know what I mean—the articles and pieces that prey on our sense of not accomplishing enough. The ones that we stop to read when we’re procrastinating instead of getting that thing we’re putting off done.* The ones that prey on our sense that we are not enough—and if we could only use that tactic or use that planner, it would all be figured out.
*And by the way, if this is why you’re here, check out my strategy to start something you’ve been putting off.
But in the last two years I've started (and actually kept) quite a few simple habits:
- Working out three days a week during the workweek
- Making healthy lunches weekly on workdays
- Having a monthly ‘virtual coffee date’ with a business owner I admire
- Writing a monthly Medium post
- Reading 100 books in a year
And this piece is actually being created as part of a new habit of mine—writing 750 words every day.
Now I’d like to say that I’m not someone who’s particularly organized. I wasn’t the girl who got my papers in days ahead of time (late nights in the library the night before was more like it.)
I was that kid in soccer who got distracted. I was off picking flowers in the field instead of defending the goal.
But I’ve come to see that habits work kind of like learning languages—the more you establish one, the easier it is to learn the next.
So I want to share the one simple habit that I think kicked it off for me.
A few years ago I was struggling with boundaries between work and life.
And making time to exercise was one of the things impacted most. I’d think about going to the gym in the morning, but I might skip it, and then by the end of the day, I was either working late or just too tired to go.
So I decided I wanted to try committing to work out three times during the workweek.
It had to be during the workweek because it was about prioritizing my health over the work.
My partner and I ran into a kindergarten teacher, and we started talking about sticker charts—you know those charts you get in school that track every good thing you do like sharing or tidying up with a little sticker?
Joking (not really) about how I missed that validation, that simple affirmation, I hatched a plan. I asked my partner to make me a sticker chart for working out. I’d get a sticker for every time I worked out during the week and a bonus sticker for every time I hit my goal of three workouts per week.
I enjoyed shopping for supplies and making the chart. I found these awesome Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles stickers that really brought me back to the days when sticker charts were in my life.
And since the day I started that sticker chart, I’ve pretty much stuck with that habit. (There was one week when I was on vacation that I forgot my workout.)
I just passed my sticker-aversary, actually.
Which is really my health-aversary.
Here's why my sticker chart worked:
- It was simple. I knew what I had to do. I could ‘set it and forget it.’ Three workouts per week, Monday-Friday. That was it. The task was simple. On tough weeks, one might be as short as 10 minutes, but it was still there.
- It showed progress. It was also simple to know that I had done it. I had to report back so I could get the sticker. It was simple to know if I’d succeeded or failed. It felt good to have my partner put the sticker on and to see those rows filling up one by one. And yeah, those Ninja Turtles stickers were pretty rad too.
- I was socially accountable. It was validating to have someone else notice that I was hitting my goals. In effect, I ‘hacked’ my inner people pleaser—the one that was causing me to work late hours, to over deliver and overcomplicate in my design projects—and rerouted her to ‘please’ the ‘teacher’ (Aka my partner, and really,my intention to prioritize my health over work).
Sticking to (hehe, like that pun?) this habit was a game changer for me.
In order to make sure I’d get my workouts in, I had to start looking ahead at my week—planning which mornings I could get my exercise in—before letting my days get filled up with other people’s priorities.
And that experience of realizing I could prioritize my commitments proactively proved to me that I could do it. In the months that followed my Ninja Turtles affair, I slowly took on more simple habits—proactive habits that improved my business like making a pitch a week, saying no weekly, and reaching out to new leads on LinkedIn weekly. And when I recently made a commitment to eating healthier, it was easy to integrate that in too.
And it’s become an essential part of my coaching work. In the Creative Career Intensive, women develop ‘set it and forget it’ habits that will drive their careers forward. Then they come to our group coaching session to report back and be held accountable.
You set the habit ahead of time so that you don’t spend your mental energy trying to figure out what to do, and so it’s clear what success looks like. But that doesn’t mean it’s always easy.
One woman who took my program, whose habit was to ask for one referral for her business per week told me, “I want to help. I don’t want to ask for help. Ten other women on the phone didn’t want to do that any more than I wanted to do mine. But ok, if this is what you say you want, then you have to get out there. You have to ask for what you want. And I saw in your program that it wasn’t just me.”
We get all kinds of messages that we're not enough. That we've tried things and failed.
We also think of career and business growth as something unstructured—like a mood board manifestation kind of thing.
And it is, but it also is just a process of doing ambitious things—things that scare us—and then repeating them.
The key is to clearly define what the task is and then to set it and forget it.
And the more you do it, the easier it is to do it again.