Everything is accumulative: building good habits to move beyond willpower

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We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act, but a habit. Aristotle


This post is an exploration of positive and negative accumulation — that is, the effect of doing something (however small or seemingly irrelevant) regularly to the point that its effects compound over time. For me, this often revolves around learning a skill, but I think it’s equally relevant for lifestyle choices such as eating, exercise and even moral choices.

TL;DR: We all have habits, some positive, some negative. If you aspire to become good or even to excel at something, the best way to achieve this is to make that something a habit.


Many people desire to be the best at any given subject, whether that be playing a musical instrument, lifting weights, eating chillis, or Parkrun. They spend their lives pursuing it, every waking hour dreaming about it, and can become crushed and envious to see others excelling in the same field.

You may, however, feel that you’ve failed to do something you wanted to become good at, for example learning to play the guitar. Perhaps that’s due to comparing yourself to John Mayer (after all, comparison is the thief of joy) or perhaps you just need a bit of consistency and encouragement in your approach.

Personally, over time I’ve become more interested in the pursuit of being good at multiple subjects rather than great at one. The variety of it keeps me excited. It’s a beautiful thing to enjoy the satisfaction of doing something well and of reaching the point that I can enjoy the fruits of my labour, knowing that it did indeed take work to get there.

Positive accumulation

Imagine you’re at the beach, running your hands through the hot, white sand. You may not be inclined to stop to think of the thousands or millions of years that it took for the water to grind the rocks down to pebbles, and pebbles down to sand. As you hold a handful of sand in your palm, that’s the result of many years of gradual effort to produce something new.

As I’m writing this it’s still early in the year, and New Years resolutions often do follow the standard tropes of; run more, learn X, do more of Y, stop Z-ing. I’m all for that, and I think the new year is as good a time as any to take a step back and consider our current trajectory in life.

I’ve noticed a bit of a backlash towards ‘resolutions’ lately, which I think may be due to us either being unrealistic about what we can achieve, or perhaps because of the prevailing cynical attitude that discourages optimism (and I believe is a challenge to all creatives). In the words of Bill Gates,

We always overestimate the change that will occur in the next two years and underestimate the change that will occur in the next ten. Don’t let yourself be lulled into inaction. Bill Gates, from “The Road Ahead,” 1996

So, setting a short term goal for success is often pointless at best, or harmful at worst. If you achieve the goal, it was probably too easy, and the sense of satisfaction is diminished. If you fail, you’re discouraged from trying again.

The first learning stage of any subject can be somewhat discouraging, but there is a day when you suddenly realise, click, you get it. Suddenly your brain has woken up, your muscle memory has actually kicked in, and things start to come together. Those days can be rare, but are well worth the effort required to reach them.

But it’s not about willpower – this comes and goes naturally through different stages of life. So how do we reach this point?

You could try blasting it. Drop everything – work, family, friends… become an obsessed genius-hermit-type living in a shed (in fact, jazz musician refer to practicing scales and technique as ‘shedding’). This is where those with singular mindedness will trip – because one subject is never really one subject. You can learn to write, but if you’re studying in isolation and not watching the world, having conversations, reading, listening, the well from which you draw inspiration will soon run dry.

I would argue that in order to reach the point in which you can truly enjoy a subject you’re interested in, it’s about making small adjustments to slot a small amount of time in every day (5 or 6 days a week – you should rest one day a week, for your own sanity and to give your brain a chance to consolidate everything). This continual, measured effort, like the tide on the rocks, results in a compound interest over time – you improve and grow whilst also having time for the important people in your life.

So what does that look like?

Reading – a beneficial habit

Reading is an interesting example: we all read a bit, even if it is just a quick mindless scroll of Facebook, or junking on news feeds. However, engaging our minds in the act of reading something challenging such as an engrossing novel or a long form article is a regular habit that research shows is good for our long term mental health:

The study showed that mentally active patients — ones who read and wrote regularly — declined at a significantly slower rate than those who had an average amount of activity. Annalisa Quinn, National Public Radio

Whilst writer Stephen King is well known for his obsession with reading at every available moment:

…there is a learning process going on. Every book you pick up has its own lesson or lessons, and quite often the bad books have more to teach than the good ones. “On Writing, a memoir of the craft”, by Stephen King

It is possible to take a shortcut with reading – services like Blinkist (review here) promise to boil down the essence of a book into it’s key components, which is particularly useful for modern business or self-improvement style books which generally have one or two key points with a lot of fluff around them — and let’s be honest, great if you need a quick conversation starter without putting any of the actual effort in.

However, having tried this method I’d say that whilst there are advantages, I believe that the process of reading and assimilating information for yourself is an important part of reading which is what makes it such a valuable pastime – rather than reading just the key points (essentially a bullet point list of information), we respond well to narrative, and to hearing the ‘voice’ of the writer.

I would suggest that reading is one of the easiest habits to form, and by being intentional, one can actually break a couple of bad habits whilst forming this good habit: when on public transport, do you read? Or do you scroll through Twitter, Instagram and Facebook? Why not treat yourself to a Kindle (other e-readers are available), load it up with a few books and encourage yourself to read them on your commute? You’ll learn loads and exercise your brain without knowing it (that’s my favourite sort of exercise).

As you can hopefully tell, what I’m talking about here is the formation of good habits. Rather than carving out two hours a day to become really good at something, I’m arguing that making small or incremental adjustments to your day to day can result in stable growth in a subject, and, as Aristotle says, can even change who we are. Once these practices become habit, willpower becomes much less of an issue and you can stay on track much more easily.

How long does it take to form a habit?

Looking around the internet, a common statement is that it takes 21 days to form or break a habit, but other research suggests that it actually depends on the subject, that is, some habits are more difficult to form than others. This sits well with me as I don’t really believe in magic numbers that act as a blanket answer across the population of the whole world!

I’ve only provided an example of reading as it’s a fairly straightforward, passive habit which I think can benefit people in all walks of life and especially all creatives, who need to keep filling their wells of inspiration. Other ideas for good habits might include:

  • Drawing: sketching, testing out different medium
  • Writing: short stories, blog posts, journaling
  • Music: listening, performance and practice (I distinguish performance from practice as both inform one another)
  • Coding: daily challenges on Code Academy or Codewars
  • Photography: aim for one good shot per day
  • Any learning: languages, geography, bush craft
  • Saving money: learn the discipline of delayed gratification
  • Walking: enjoying some peaceful time with no screen or headphones
  • Charity: giving to those less well off than yourself
  • Hospitality: hosting and enjoying the company of others

Creativity is just connecting things. Steve Jobs

Negative accumulation

We’ve talked about forming good habits, and that’s the usual feel-good route for articles of this ilk. However, whilst positive accumulation enables us to grow and develop, negative accumulation is the product of bad habits – they may seem harmless at the time but can become damaging in the long term.

This may sound a bit preachy, and if I said I didn’t struggle with many of these things I would certainly be lying, but there are issues in our lives that we should be aware of and in many cases, battle against. We’re often far too aspirational and not self-aware enough to realise what could trip us up before we even get started.

Negative habits and patterns might include:

  • Lack of sleep, or poor sleeping patterns
  • Eating too much or not healthily
  • Drinking too much (caffeine and / or alcohol)
  • Consuming the news endlessly
  • Television
  • Screen time: social media scrolling, Facebook faffing
  • Push notifications: just turn them off
  • Worrying: stress about things out of your control

Notably, lack of sleep can lead to the other negative habits being reinforced – partly due to lack of willpower when your tired. If you used to be care-free, but now find yourself worrying about the worst possible things happening (irrationally), then I’d suggest that it may be that these worries have become a regular habit without you noticing.

I don’t ascribe to the school of thought that those running on four hours of sleep or less are impressive titans of humanity. The attitude that drives us towards such actions is one of a desperate attempt to be fully in control (possibly driven out of a deep lack of satisfaction in themselves or an anxiety about life), to the extent that sleeping is a distraction from the all important role of living.

It also suggests that the individual values their own output far more than that of people around them – surely some element of delegation and working with others would reduce their workload to a manageable amount?

Summary

Small but regular habits become strong foundations to build on. And you will likely find that as those foundations build and you feel your ‘chops’ getting stronger, you will naturally build on your habits and will move towards becoming great, and then excelling at, your interest.

Equally, negative (bad) habits are destructive to our energy levels, health and creativity, and can often cause us to live in a perpetual hunger for amusement (amusement means literally something which pleasantly diverts the attention). We lose the ability to focus.

As Aristotle said, “we are what we repeatedly do”. Do we want to become full of inspiration, creativity and energy (as I believe we are made to be), or tired and uninspired?


I really appreciate you taking the time to read this! Now I’d better go take my own bloody medicine I suppose… Have something to add? Comment below!

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Photo by Martin Sanchez

By Graham Ormiston

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