18 Things I've Learned about Changing Habits, Settings Goals, and Living Life

Nothing so needs reforming as other people's habits.

― Mark Twain

For the past 8 years, I've worked on various aspects of my life. In the beginning, it was mostly confidence and appearance related- working on improving my posture, my speaking voice, and my self-confidence- because I worked in a sales office where those things were valued. That was where I was first introduced to self-improvement and the power of the mind.

But it was after I left there when I really started working on myself on a deeper level. It started with nutrition, as I had returned to the martial arts training I was doing before I got into sales. I've never stopped working on nutrition, but I worked on it most heavily in those first two years.

Some of the things I worked on during that time were drinking the recommended amount of water daily, resisting sweets and other temptation foods, and becoming a vegetarian again (I was a vegetarian for about 5 years beginning in high school).

Soon after that, having read the first 5-10 pages of Bruce Lee's Tao of Jeet Kune Do an endless amount of times and being always confused by the Zen speak but interested in learning more, I read a little book by the name of The Beginner's Guide to Zen Buddhism. I was consequently led to an even deeper level of "self-development".

This is when I received my first real introduction to meditation and began meditating every morning before training, and soon after that discovered the work of Thich Nhat Hanh, Shunryu Suzuki, as well as others that would go on to be my teachers and began practicing meditation throughout my everyday life. And this is what would eventually inspire me to start writing.

Within that time I've changed a lot of my old habits, set and completed a lot of goals, and worked on improving my life in a lot of different ways. Here are some examples of habits I've worked on and developed during that time:

  1. Daily sitting meditation
  2. Writing 1000 a words a day (and later 3000+)
  3. Mindful breathing every hour
  4. Mindfulness throughout my everyday life (which breaks down to multiple things)
  5. Seeking to understand and express compassion in every situation
  6. Waking up early (from 7:30 to 3 A.M. over the course of 2-3 years)
  7. Resisting sweets and temptation foods
  8. Drinking 8-10 cups of water daily
  9. Becoming a vegetarian (and now slowly shifting towards vegan)
  10. Morning tea meditation
  11. Reducing & controlling smartphone usage
  12. Keeping a journal
  13. Daily gratitude exercise
  14. Daily physical exercise
  15. Controlling spending and getting good at managing my money
  16. Being present for my kids
  17. Reading two books a month
  18. Establishing an email routine
  19. Improving my posture (sitting + standing)
  20. Seeing people as myself
  21. Being more present, attentive, and compassionate in my personal relationships

Some of these are small, some are big, some are life-long endeavors, and some took just a few months to fully develop. And in that time I've learned a lot about creating and changing habits, setting and achieving goals, and all-around striving to live life to the fullest.

It's my hope that I can transfer to you some of the insights I've gotten during that time. Perhaps they can save you time, help you get through a tough spot, or improve your life in a general sense. Whatever it is, I hope you find value in what I've learned.

20 Things I've Learned about Changing Habits, Settings Goals, and Living Life

1. Make life-long commitments, not short-term goals

Positive life changes like these aren't short-term goals, they're life-long commitments. The above list of personal habit changes I've made over the past 8 years are, for the most part, life-long endeavors. Meditation, reading, gratitude, money management, compassion, rising early, and taking care of my body are all things which I expect to do for my entire life.

Things do change, though. For instance, I no longer do my daily gratitude exercise because after doing it for nearly a full year I naturally find things to be grateful for in my everyday life without extra effort. But for the most part, this applies to everything.

What you're really doing with all this is designing your life, not trying to get some short-term result. If that's what you're after then you need to reevaluate why you want what you want first before you do anything else.

You should live grounded in the present moment, but understand that what you do on a day-to-day basis has a substantial effect on what you will be doing 10, 20, and 30 years from now. Realize this and begin making changes today- not tomorrow or next year.

2. Self-control is key

Self-control is one of the single most important factors in achieving anything. Self-control includes such aspects as the ability to motivate oneself, belief in one's own ability, and one's ability to handle strong emotions (all incredibly important abilities). Overall, it's a sort of internal locus of control which grounds you to some specific spot which you previously designated for yourself.

Imagine a boulder. This boulder experiences heavy rain, powerful lightning, flash floods, earthquakes, and more from Mother Nature. But no matter what, it doesn't budge.

When you decide to do something- achieve some goal or a simple intention- it's your self-control that keeps you rooted in place when adversity hits you, like the boulder that weathers the many storms that Mother Nature throws at it.

Your motivation, self-belief, and ability to handle strong emotions is what keeps you grounded. The good thing is, self-control can be developed. Whether it's motivation, self-confidence, or developing the ability to handle strong emotions, you can increase your level of self-control, and that will aid you for the rest of your life.

3. Develop faith in what you're doing

Buddhism speaks of having faith, but it's probably not the faith you're familiar with. Buddhist faith is a sort of trust or confidence in something, which in Buddhism is generally faith in the "3 jewels" of the Buddha, the Dharma, and the Sangha (ultimately, the same teaching seen from 3 different perspectives).

Through years of daily practice monks develop confidence in their path, the Buddha's path, by experiencing for themselves the truth of the Buddha's words with regards to the path to peace and liberation from suffering.

This same type of faith, or confidence, is important to have in whatever you're doing. In order to translate to people why what you do is important and in order to keep pushing yourself forward when adversity rears its ugly head, you need to have faith in what you do.

Just as the Buddhist monk develops faith in their practice through their personal experience, to truly believe and get behind something you should first experience it yourself firsthand. Don't take someone else's word for it, be a lamp unto yourself.

Whether this is following the path to true peace and happiness or standing behind a product you believe in that can create a positive impact in the world, let people feel how much you believe in what you do and remind yourself constantly why you have so much confidence in it.

4. Goals don't matter (what matters is what you do each and every day)

Back when I was doing sales, goals were a must. If you didn't have goals you were looked at as unfocused or altogether lost.

Years later, having worked on the abovementioned list of habit changes, as well as having worked hard to build Buddhaimonia, write my first book (soon to be two!), and build a strong and healthy family, I can honestly say with every ounce of my being that you don't need goals.

Keep in mind that, for the most part, I mean this on a larger scale. In a given day, I often give myself a word count goal to get through to gauge my writing pace. Lately, with my upcoming 2nd book Zen for Everyday Life, it's been up to 3,000 words (which, provided the kids don't wake up early or something, I can hit pretty consistently).

But even then, what really matters is that I'm working constantly throughout the day to write as much as I possibly can. That goal is simply based on the date I want to finish the book (which, based on the 200~ page size has now become January instead of the original December date), it doesn't really push me to write faster.

What really matters is what you do each and every day. The goal is the end result, and the end result is not what you want to focus on. When you focus so intently on your day-to-day activity, doing what's most important in each day, then the end goal vanishes and becomes a moot point.

Sure, you'll still set some goals. Obviously finishing a book is a goal (or perhaps an intention), but I never think about it. All I think about is doing my best work each day and I know that whenever it is that I finish it will be my best work.

And when you focus on what you do in each moment instead of always being focused on the end result, you live grounded in reality and the peace of the day instead of being dazed in an imaginary fantasy, the latter leading to all kinds of trouble.

5. It takes more than 21 days to create a habit

There's even scientific evidence to back this up. So how long does it really take?

The research suggested between 2 and 8 months, and I'd have to agree. Some things I seemed to establish rather quickly, even faster than that (1 month or so), some things most definitely took longer. Becoming an early riser? Yeah, took me nearly a full year to really consistently wake up at even a formidable 6:30 A.M.

Because these are things which you're working to develop into life-long changes, I wouldn't worry about how long it will take to develop something into a habit. What exactly makes a habit a habit anyway? When was waking up early officially a habit for me? Once I did it 2/3 days in a month? 4/5? 9.5/10?

It's easy to tell if something is a habit, but when working to establish a new habit it's nearly impossible to tell when that action turned from being just a goal to a habit, and trying to find that out is a largely useless endeavor.

Habits are just life improvements you'd like to make, nothing more and nothing less. Calling some things habits and other things life changes or life improvements is just confusing. They're all the same thing, so don't be fooled.

Whatever you choose to call it, it's just you seeking to improve the quality of your life. And that's not a 21 day process, it's life-long.

6. Changing habits isn't about perfection (just don't quit)

You haven’t failed to change a habit until you quit trying.

To roll off of this point, the same set of research found that creating a habit isn't an all-or-nothing process. What I mean by that is you could screw up from time to time and miss a day and it wouldn't affect the process of developing the habit.

I can vouch for this point like nobody's business. I was in no way perfect when working to establish just about any of the various habits I mentioned earlier.

Drinking water? I'd forget my water bottle in my car and go an entire day without any water. Meditation? I used to be a productivity junkie and sometimes used the excuse that I wanted to get more work done so I'd "skip just this session". Waking up early? I'd go an entire string of days waking up late at times.

I think the most important point to keep in mind is that you haven't failed to change a habit until you quit trying.

This is such an important point to keep in mind because we tend to beat ourselves up especially in the beginning when we're first working to change bad habits into good ones. Don't beat yourself up, you don't have to be perfect to change your habits.

7. It's not about becoming better, it's about fully accepting and expressing you

You’re perfect right now just as you are.

This is absolutely one of the most important points on this entire list, but it wasn't until recently that I realized it.

"Moving forward" in life, or whatever you want to call it, isn't about self-improvement. The term self-improvement suggests that something is wrong with you, and that's damaging in itself, aside from the fact that it's outright wrong. There's absolutely, positively, nothing wrong with you- and you need to realize this as soon as possible.

But another important point you need to realize is that the negative self-talk that loops itself in your subconscious isn't you at all. "I'm not good enough", "I could never do that", and "I don't deserve to be happy" are all examples of negative self-talk. These limiting beliefs, which often hide below the surface of our consciousness, masquerade as us and make us think that we're lacking in some way.

But these thoughts aren't you at all, and nothing does a better job of helping you see this than a daily practice of meditation. Meditation has a way of separating the real you and the false you like oil and water sitting together in a pitcher. Stir them around and they'll almost seem to mix, but let the pitcher sit still and the oil will begin to separate from the water, making it all too clear that the oil is not the water (and vice versa).

You are the pure clean water, not the oil. The sooner you realize this the sooner you can live in peace and accept yourself fully as you are. This is what it's about. Any illusion that something called "self-improvement" exists is just that, an illusion, and should be gotten rid of. Instead I rather we start using something like "life-improvement" because making changes to improve the quality of our lives is a very real thing which we can do.

The things we generally consider self-improvement are things which make our lives better, not us better. You're perfect right now just as you are. Don't let all this changing of habits or negative self-talk make you think otherwise. Working to change your habits is worthwhile and rewarding, but stop looking at it from the standpoint of improving yourself, and start looking at it as improving your life. 

Here's a great video on the subject from Tibetan Buddhist nun Pema Chodron's recent guest appearance on Super Soul Sunday:

8. Be authentic (not fear-based)

Be careful that your actions aren't diluted by fear- fear of what others will think, fear of failure, and other limiting beliefs. This negative self-talk, these fears which we hold inside of us, strongly influence what we do.

Adopting a regular meditation practice, both sitting meditation and being mindful in your everyday life, can help you identify these fears and bring them to the surface so that you can separate yourself from them.

This can take time, but it's altogether necessary in order for you to find peace and happiness. Like the peeling back of an orange peel one piece at a time, you need to peel back the layers of you in order to see into the deepest reaches of yourself. Once you do this, you can operate from a purely authentic state of mind, unbound by fear and other limiting beliefs.

9. Go all in, or reevaluate why you won't

Whatever it is that you're doing, if it's something of great value to you, then you need to go all in. You can see this principle in action everywhere, from successful business people to Buddhist monks and nuns, the practice of going "all in" towards something of great value is often integral towards achieving it.

In the business world, this was likely defined first and made popular via a little book by the name of Think and Grow Rich (a staple among staples in the business realm), where the author begins by detailing the story of Edwin C. Barnes.

Edwin C. Barnes risked literally everything to establish a business relationship with Thomas Edison. The result? Years later, the slogan "Made by Edison and installed by Barnes" was eventually born.

You can't be wishy-washy when it comes to those things which are really important to you. Serious about finding peace and happiness in your everyday life? Don't meditate every once in a while, meditate every single day, be mindful throughout your day, and really start digging deep within yourself.

Want to start your own business? Follow your dream? Work at it every day, not just when it's convenient. Step outside of your comfort zone, be honest with yourself, and use every failure as a stepping stone.

And if you're not willing to go all in? Find out why. Refer to the last point- is it fear or some limiting belief? Or is it the ego getting the better of you?

You don't need to do this with everything, but big dreams and goals require a big commitment, and they often need you to go all in to have the best chance at success. Decide what you really want out of life and go after it with everything you've got.

10. In the beginning, it's difficult to keep a consistent effort. After some time, it's automatic

At first, you'll find yourself scattered all over the place. Imagine two horizontal sound waves running parallel to one another while registering different sounds. One wave is flying up and down and another is slowly flowing slightly down and then slightly up. As the sounds begin to change and become more similar, the waves begin to seem more and more in sync.

This is what it's like to change a habit. In the beginning, your old habit energies will be pushing and pulling you one way and then the other constantly. You might have an initial burst of excitement, but once that wears off you'll see it will be difficult at first to keep up a consistent effort.

Luckily, as we discussed earlier, you don't need to be perfectly consistent. The most important point is just to keep working at it. If you do that, it will gradually become easier.

You'll then eventually reach a point where it takes very little effort compared to when you started. This is the point where your habit energy has shifted over and is now working in your favor. This is when the sound waves have stopped and now match each other in harmony.

Depending on the habit, this will take time. But if you work diligently and stay patient you'll get to a point where it's no longer hard work. It will still take work to upkeep, but it will be more automatic effort than anything else.

11. In the beginning, you need to move quickly and "stack" victories

In the beginning of establishing a new habit, the process is very fragile. That is, the entire situation will be very unstable- in a flash you can drop everything and go right back to your old routine, never to look back. It's because of this that one of the most powerful things you can do when first working to develop a new daily habit is to "stack" victories.

What I mean by that is, you need to take a lot of action in the beginning that will move you towards your goal. This way, you build up a strong momentum, and it's this momentum that will carry you in the beginning. You can use an exercise I described here to do this.

12. Measure everything

Businesses, especially businesses online, understand the importance of measuring activity. They measure who goes where, when they did it, what age they were, how long they stayed, where they went next, and anything else they can possibly measure.

You can use this same principle in your own life to maintain a strong foundation while working to develop habits and accomplish tasks. This is usually included as a part of an accountability system, however, it's often seen as the secondary (and often overlooked) benefit.

Accountability has two benefits: 1) measuring your progress and 2) having to report to someone else that you didn't come through on what you said you'd do. For many in the beginning, the second reason is the most powerful and the major reason to use accountability.

But you can't forget the importance of the first point. Measuring your activity is powerful and can lead to a number of valuable insights about your behavior that might help you improve your efforts.

The Reporter app is a great tool for this. I don't personally use it anymore, but I tested it for a while and have considered using it in the future. It's a great app for monitoring your daily activity and for keeping tabs on your progress.

13. You will be consistently inconsistent- and that's OK

All that matters is that you work on giving your best effort in every given moment.

No matter how hard you work, you won't be 100% consistent. But the thing is, you don't need to be. I wake up late on average once every 2 weeks (this includes Sat-Sun, I wake up at the same time Mon-Sun 3-3:30 am). Some days, early in the morning I look up to see a newly awoken baby staring back at me from across the room, consequently meaning my morning meditation is cut short.

Sometimes I get pulled in other directions or get distracted, consequently writing less than my daily writing goal. This is OK, you don't need to be perfect. All that matters is that you work on giving your best effort in every given moment. 

14. Waking up early and adopting a daily morning routine is like supercharging yourself

My morning routine is the most powerful, peaceful, and productive part of my day. And my guess is, I'm not the first person you've heard say that. Waking up early, whether that's 7 A.M. or 3 A.M., and then crafting a daily morning routine, is one of the most powerful things you can do to move your life forward in all aspects.

My morning routine acts as a sort of anchor to the craziness of my everyday life. Having two young boys, a 3-year-old and a 1-year-old, is already enough to keep my wife and I busy on top of everything else, so the peace and quiet of the morning are invaluable to keeping me grounded.

If there's a part of your day you should work on the most, I'd suggest starting with your morning. But ultimately only you know what's best for you. Maybe you work a graveyard shift, I don't know.

What's most important is that you inspect your day and find pockets of peace and quiet. That's the major reason that the morning is so powerful. Whatever you can do to replicate that, whenever you can get the time, is most important.

15. Stop prioritizing what's not important

Most don't realize it, but we all have priorities whether we choose them ourselves or not. This is our habit energy. When it comes down to it, habits, specifically those positive activities which we'd like to do every day and often instead of other negative ones, are about priorities.

Find out what matters most to you and structure your life in a way that you put those things first, then decide what positive habits you should build towards those priorities. It shouldn't be about starting a simple gratitude exercise daily or weekly so that you cultivate gratitude and become (hopefully) happier as a result. It's about deciding that being happy is most important to you and that you want to prioritize that in your life somehow.

We often act as if the "staples" of modern life are the most important parts of our life. But they aren't. Work is not the most important thing in life. There, I said it. Building a family is not the most important thing in life. There, I said it again. These are all major parts of most of our lives (or they will be), but they aren't what should be prioritized.

Treating others with compassion and setting an example of kindness is one of the most important things in life. Becoming more aware in your everyday life, living with mindfulness, so that you can not only overcome those things hidden deep within you but discover the peace and importance of the present moment, is one of the most important things in life. Expressing love is one of the most important things in life.

These are important things. Work and family life are ever-connected to them, but they're more environments than they are life priorities. You can go to work, or you can not go to work. You can raise a family, or you can choose not to. What's important is living with compassion, greater awareness, love, and the like.

If you have a family then expressing those things to your family- compassion, understanding, love, and being fully present- are most important. So the same still stands, with regards to your actions, those are your priorities.

Stop prioritizing what's not important- money, power, responsibility, pleasing others- and start prioritizing what's really important. Everything after that is a lifestyle choice, not what's most important.

16. Automate, or keep a list of, unimportant but necessary responsibilities

I don't want my approaching car payment to occupy even the smallest fraction of my mind. It's not fun, desirable, or productive in any way shape or form. Set up daily reminders and automate as many of these tasks as possible to remove the mental burden.

This can take the form of a small daily list that you keep and look at no more than once or twice daily, reminders set up on your phone so that you don't have to remember anything, or the setting of certain tasks on autopilot such as paying bills.

I use the iOS app Clear to keep simple lists of tasks which I don't want to forget. It lets me simultaneously set reminders for those tasks so that I don't have to jump or communicate between apps, and the user interface is super clean, easy to read, and well organized.

17. Mindfulness helps us watch ourselves and find the imbalance

On a base level, we want to keep some sort of "balance" about our lives. Mindfulness helps us return to a place of balance and then maintain this balance once we've arrived there. Nothing is as good at helping us watch ourselves- our thoughts, actions, changes in our environment- as mindfulness is.

Acting with greater, complete, or "wise" awareness as mindfulness is sometimes called naturally shifts us towards a more harmonious life because of its uncanny ability to helps us identify imbalance.

On one end, there is no imbalance. Living in mindfulness we live perfectly accepting of all events- aware of the source acting in the many we see that everything is just fine as it is. But in a rational sense, we know it's better that we don't keep harboring this hatred, keep beating ourselves up, or mistreating others. And it's through becoming aware of this that we're able to find balance.

18. The most powerful life changes are slow and gradual

Establishing new habits is like the expanding roots of a tree. Those roots often grow slowly and gradually, but once grown they're so intrinsically connected to the soil which they've grown from that it's almost impossible to pull them out.

Likewise, those things which take the least amount of time and effort to develop tend to be the easiest to falter on later and those things which took the longest to develop become so ingrained in you that you almost couldn't stop doing them if you tried.

You'll want to start working on those things which will take some time to develop now and work on them diligently. And there's no point trying to find shortcuts, major positive habits such as daily meditation and exercise just take time, so it's best to give a strong consistent effort.

I've found that working extra-hard on a new life-long habit doesn't do much to help establish them any faster. What's needed is a strong and consistent effort with the patience to see the endeavor through.

What have you learned about habits, goals, and living life with a purpose? I'd love to hear your own insights!