Wednesday, 12 January 2011

Set your brain to autopilot: habits for success

I recently read Malcom Gladwell's terrific book, Outliers. He examines the lives of highly successful people like Bill Gates and proposes a reason for their success: the 10,000 hour rule. To be the best, you've got to put in 10,000 hours of practice. And not just any practice - focused practice. It's all about constantly analysing your performance (and better yet, having a coach who can objectively analyse your performance) and adapting how you practise, so that you constantly improve.

I read this and believed it immediately. The best marathon runners take a good ten years of intense training to reach their peak. All up (running, stretching, cross training) they often train three hours per day, which equates to 1000 hours per year. Ten years of that regime is the blueprint for a running machine.

I really liked this concept. A message that I have picked up subconciously over time is that the elite in society are there because they are 'naturally talented'. I used to put these people on a pedestal and would think to myself 'I could never be that person. They were just born that way.' 

Gladwell shows that this is a pretty bogus idea. The top performers in any field: artists, musicians, athletes, speakers, politicians, pilots, comedians, are successful not because they were born that way, but because they've put in thousands of hours of hard effort to improve their craft. 

For me it was very empowering to read this. I now truly believe that I can reach any target I set myself, learn any skill I want to learn and become the person I want to become. All it takes is to have a goal and be willing to put in the work to get there. How much work? 10,000 hours.  

I have to admit though that 10,000 hours is a lot of work. The thought of this much practice felt a bit daunting to me. How could I maintain my motivation to keep putting in the hours of focused practice day after day?  

Recently I worked it out: I just have to stop thinking about it.

Habits for success:
Here's my theory: to rack up 10,000 hours, the practice has to become a habit. Instead of thinking about it, you just do it. And once you do it enough, reinforce those neurological pathways and really drum it into your brain, it becomes a habit. 

An example: running every morning
I used to be really bad at getting going in the morning. I'd lounge around, take a good hour to have breakfast, take another half an hour to shower and get changed and then finally get out the door. Often, I'd take the easy way out. I've set myself a target to run the 6km to uni, so I combine commuting with training. But a lot of days, I'd get up and think "I don't really feel like running. My legs are a bit sore. I'm a bit tired.". Inevitably, I'd cave in and just ride my bike in instead, which isn't much of a workout at all. On top of that, I'd get to uni quite late, because I spent so much time mucking around.

Recently, I've become much better. I run in to uni every morning and I get there early. 

What's changed? I've made it a habit. Now when I wake up, I don't listen to those thoughts. I just grab my bag (which I've packed the night before), put on my shoes and run out the door. What I find is that once I get going, I start feeling good. As I run through the streets, the mental fog of sleepiness gradually wears away and I feel energised. What's more, I'm learning at the same time because I've got podcasts or audio books playing on my MP3 player. 

Running in the morning has become something I just do. It's now a habit. 

Habits for everything
After my success with running in the morning, I'm now looking for habits I can use for all of my goals. Here are some other habits I'm forming:
- Hindi practice: I'm trying to learn Hindi right now, so I've decided to make it a habit to do 10 minutes of Hindi practice during my afternoon tea break.
- Pushups: every time I walk into my room, I drop down and do 20 pushups.  
- MIT planning after dinner: I've found that a guaranteed way to have an effective and productive day is to plan my Most Important Things (MITs) the night before. 
- Yoga before bed: Many nights I find it hard to sleep because I've got so many ideas racing through my head. I've decided to start doing a 20 minute yoga session before bed. This calms me and also improves my flexibility.

What are some habits you could use to start racking up 10,000 hours towards your goals? (And what are the habits that are holding you back?)

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