Are you being a spasmodic Hercules?

I’m a fan of Anthony Trollope, who was an amazingly prolific British writer in the nineteenth century.  While working full time for much of his life, he produced 47 novels and a variety of other works.  The novels were typically hundreds of pages long and many of them are regarded as classics; if you want to try one with a lot of contemporary resonance, you might like “The Way We Live Now”.  It’s about a financial manipulator who insinuates himself into upper crust society (a terrific miniseries was made of it starring David Suchet).  How did Trollope produce such a huge body of consistently excellent work?  This quote from him offers a clue: “A small daily task, if it really be daily, will beat the labors of a spasmodic Hercules.”  He was very self-disciplined about writing, finding ways to weave it throughout his life even while he was in a demanding full time job.

Trollope’s experience reinforces something I’ve often seen and experienced – the power of habit, and conversely how difficult it is to achieve something big if you try to pursue it with isolated bursts of activity.  Some things can be done in short sprints of effort, applied at uneven intervals, but many important and transformative things cannot.  You won’t learn a foreign language or start a company or play an instrument well or get in shape, without putting in the time and doing it regularly.

This is not a new idea .. Aristotle (who managed to achieve a thing or two) wrote about it a few thousand years ago, when he said “you are what you do habitually.”  You may know about a more recent take on the notion in Malcolm Gladwell’s book “Outliers”, where he talks about the magic of working 10,000 hours to master an activity.  Gladwell has found many fields where the people who hit that number have become dramatically better than everyone around them and achieved remarkable results.  You aren’t going to accumulate that kind of experience unless you are doing it virtually every day for many years.

I think that there are two reasons why a habit can let us achieve so much more:

  • The investment adds up over time.  When we’re forcing ourselves to do something, we often have a very poor sense of how much actual productive time we’re devoting to it.  We vividly remember the times when we worked on our project, not the long stretches when we didn’t.  We also remember all the time we spent thinking about doing it.  But none of that really matters – what counts is the time you spend doing it.  By making it a habit, you spend a lot less time thinking about it or planning it or stressing about not doing it .. and your regular investments of time really add up after a while.   It’s just like the difference between saving money as a conscious act of repeated self-denial vs. having it deducted automatically from your paycheck.
  • Habits take less willpower.  This may seem counter-intuitive, but I’ve found that it’s far easier to do something as a habit.  Once you have an ingrained habit, you don’t have to constantly force yourself .. it’s just what you do.  For instance, take working out.  For the past several months, I’ve worked out pretty much every day.  At 6:15, off I go for a 45 minute session.  I don’t think about it, I don’t will myself to go, it’s just the way it is.  I used to work out regularly much less often, and then try to supplement it with additional time that I had to schedule.  And that was always a struggle – a thousand other priorities competed with a workout, and they often (usually) won.  As a habit, it just happens.

There is some good advice in this article on how to make a habit really stick – committing for 30 days, doing something daily, starting with a manageable piece, and so forth.  I thought this blog entry from Martin Varsavsky was also very interesting – he has founded seven companies, runs a large non-profit, and he writes and speaks prolifically.  He writes about how he keeps so many things going at once, and it is by having carefully streamlined his life.  He’s cultivated a set of habits that save time, and has eliminated many that waste it.  Like television.  I find many of his ideas to make sense (our family “cut the cord” on television ten years ago, and it has been a great success for us).  I radically disagree with some of his other decisions, like not reading books – I’ve been an obsessive reader since I was 4 and would be miserable without having books as a constant presence in my life.  But the point is not whether you agree with his decisions .. it’s to think about your own life as carefully as he has and find ways to optimize it for what makes you feel happy and fulfilled.

What important goals could you be achieving by turning them into habits?