A friend asked me what I thought is the best skill to develop. Build the habit of habits, I told her.
That’s how you get the most out of yourself and your place. It won’t always work but if you develop the rigor and constitution to choose to add a habit and then go and do just that, you’ll be gold. That is how you develop discipline.
My method for doing this is my near obsessive approach to annual resolutions. Each year, I put forward a dozen of them, many straightforward goals but often several tied to habits I want to add to who I am. I tie them to individual months but in truth I plan to do many of them throughout the year and beyond.
Recently I was considering how many personality traits of mine I believe started as resolutions. I think they’re a good example of building the habit of building habits. I wanted to share.
It’s important to note that I’m far from perfect on this. I put forward lots of plans I don’t land. But I do a pretty solid job of sitting down to set goals and then reaching them. Find here examples of changes to my behavior that first were resolutions (or otherwise intentional goals I set for myself):
- Say “I don’t know;” “I am wrong;” “I am sorry” more. I grew up really, really, really stubborn, unable to use these phrases. In my early twenties, I began to realize how annoying and hurtful and frustrating that was. So I made it a point to change my behavior. I started by literally counting: I had to say these things at least once a week. Not in euphemism or for some triviality: I had to say those literal phrases and mean it weekly. A decade later, I’m shocked how many adults I know whom I don’t think will ever say any of them.
- Cook more often — The original resolution years ago was to cook one new meal every month. Growing up around a mother who cherished cooking, this was in-born but the resolution drove me to expand my interests, taste and skill.
- Swear less — A mentor told me I swore too much and it was embarrassing. I made a concerted effort to do it less, at least publicly. I’ve made strides, and it changed how I speak.
- Write weekly on my personal site — Almost 10 years ago I made the ridiculous plan to write weekly on my personal site. Though the amount has ranged, for more than a decade I have written at least once a month on this site. This has been so important for me to develop ideas. It has shaped me.
- Complete at least one domestic and international trip each year — Coming off an ugly 2009 year (emotionally, professionally, financially), I set this resolution. I’ve followed through every year since.
- Tell better stories — I wanted to be a better storyteller. So I launched a regular storytelling event among friends called Story Shuffle. It ran for six years and I closed it out with a super fun podcast. I have lots of room to grow but I’m so much better today than I was then.
- Start gardening — Started as a way to honor my late mother, every Mother’s Day, I kickoff my summer gardening season, something that has become a great source of pride.
- Learn more about business — True story: a year or two into business reporting, I woke up from a nightmare in which I embarrassed myself (and my company) on a CNBC interview. I immediately started devouring economics podcasts, business news and personal finance best practices. I kicked off a spate of longform municipal tax reporting projects (that grew from something like this to this and this) that deeply introduced me to the wonky world.
- Drink whiskey — Around the time I graduated college, I vaguely held to the idea that I was interested by the culture of whiskey. An uncle I deeply love is an aficionado of sorts Professionals I admire did too. I found I liked it. But I felt overwhelmed by its history. However, where wine interested me less, I was willing to put in the time. So though I remain far from an expert, I’ve made it my drink of choice and with learning and talking and drinking, I have a handle here.
- Drink coffee black — Of course there’s lots of culture here too. I was nearly 30 before I ever drank coffee. Though I’m also no true master here, I appreciate the global commodity in a new way, something I look forward to trying when traveling abroad or relaxing at home.
- Dress better — I wanted to change what had been a fundamental part of my personality — “I don’t care about what I wear!” No one will tell you I’m stylish, but from that start, I’ve come a long way. I got a pair of suits tailored, I paid attention to what it meant to buy clothes that actually fit. I developed a system of tossing out old stuff and getting new stuff (within my means). I’m better.
- Reduce your physical clutter — I’m from a family of hoarders. But with the start of a series of gamified efforts (donate one more item than the day before for a month!; you must get rid of at least one item for every new item you bring into the house!) I’ve gotten considerably better than this. Thanks SACMW.
- Pay for journalism — I was growing a news organization, so I started donating (modestly) and purchasing subscriptions to efforts I consumed regularly. I still do that.
- Read international news — I bought an Economist subscription. (Related to paying for journalism too). I’ve become a deeply more aware person.
- Be (more) punctual — Look, I’m still not great at this. But I was once notoriously late. I started with a resolution of adding to my calendar the times I had to leave a place to get somewhere else. I internalized what it meant to be late for someone else. It’s helped. I can do more.
- Donate a percentage of my salary — I wanted a system for philanthropy. In 2015, I piloted something I suspect will be a part of me for the rest of my working life.
- Understand coffee — In 2015, I started a journey (late) to understand everyone’s favorite drug vehicle. Since then in countries like Greece and Spain and Cuba and Morocco, I’ve found portions of the subculture.
- Don’t use laptops during internal meetings — In 2016, a coworker mentioned I worked on my laptop during meetings and it proved distracting. I was horrified by it. With very limited exceptions, I’ve been focused ever since.
- Get fitter — I turned 30 and had all sorts of health angst. I changed a lot. I’m a gym regular, a (slightly) healthier eater and at least a lot more mindful of the pitfalls.
- Write more creatively — Feeling that my journalism work had strengthened me but pulled me away from my initial writing love, last year I’ve started what I hope will be another lifelong habit: writing and submitting creative writing regularly.
I’m so proud of this list. I think it’s important to share. For some reason, a lot of us like to pretend we were born with the knowledge we have as adults. But it takes a lot of effort to be the best person we can be. It takes considerable effort and planning. I work really hard to be a better version of myself. So much of what I do didn’t come naturally: I worked at it.
The best way to get there is building the habit of habits.
Highway image by thomas shellberg via Unsplash.