The Secret To Better Habits in 2023

It’s kind of crazy to think how recent December 2019 feels. Not that long ago, it seems, we were getting ready for what a new decade might bring us. It’s even crazier when the truth settles in: 2019 was THREE years ago. We are well into that decade.

And so much has changed. So much has happened. But at the same time, so little has changed. We’re still struggling with the same things. The aspirations we had back in 2019—this was the year we were going to lose weight, start that big project, learn a new language, work on our temper—are still there, still waiting to be realized.

How much longer are we going to wait though? How much time are we going to let escape us? Hopefully not much longer.

The main thing is that we stop expecting this to simply happen. In one of the best passages in Marcus Aurelius’s Meditations (check out this awesome leatherbound edition), Marcus tells himself to stop hoping and “be his own savior while he can.” It’s great advice—advice we should follow this year.

And we do that by starting with some foundational habits and mindset shifts. Or at least, that’s what I am trying to focus on as I prepare for 2023.

Think Small

The writer James Clear talks a lot about the idea of “atomic habits” (and has a really good book with the same title). An atomic habit is a small habit that makes an enormous difference in your life. He talks about how the British cycling team was completely turned around by focusing on 1% improvements in every area. That sounds small, but Clear emphasizes that repetitive actions accumulate and add up in a big way over time. Don’t promise yourself you’re going to read more; instead, commit to reading one page per day. Thinking big is great, but thinking small is easier. And easier is what we’re after when it comes to getting started. Because once you get started, you can build.

Lengthen Your Timeline

One of the most important habits, the habit that makes all other habits possible, is patience. This was one of the lessons taught to me through opening my bookstore, The Painted Porch (delayed a year by COVID). It always takes longer than you think it’s going to take. That’s Hofstadter’s law. And even when you take the law into account, you’re still surprised. We want our progress now. We want our success now. We want our rewards now. But if you can practice delayed gratification, if you can understand that all good things take time, that it’s a process, you’re almost always going to be more successful. Think of Marcus Aurelius, who’s told that he’s going to be emperor, that he just has to learn under Antoninus for two or three years. As it happens, Marcus has to wait in the wings for twenty-three years before putting on imperial purple. Whether you’re writing a book, whether you’re being a leader, whether you have kids, whether you’re wanting to lose weight or improve your mile time—having patience is critical.

See Everything as a Challenge

In 2018, we did our first Daily Stoic Challenge, full of different challenges and activities based on Stoic philosophy. It was an awesome experience. Even I, the person who created the challenge, got a lot out of it. Why? Deciding what we want to do, determining our own habits, and making the right choices is exhausting. Handing the wheel over to someone else is a way to narrow our focus and put everything into the commitment.

To kick off 2023, we’re doing another Daily Stoic Challenge. The idea is that you ought to start the New Year off right—with 21 great days to create momentum for the rest of the year. If you want to have better habits this year, find a challenge you can participate in. Just try one: it doesn’t matter what it’s about or who else is doing it.

Do The Important Things First

Hugh Jackman reads right after he wakes up (early) in the morning. As he explained: “I read a book with my wife. So we get up and we read to each other for half an hour. It’s the best. I recommend it to anyone…It’s the greatest way to start the day. Right now I’m reading Stillness Is the Key…I’m really into philosophy. So we read, and we talk, because stuff’s on your mind…That way, no matter what happens through our day, we know that we’ve had quality time together. You always think, tonight; after work; after this; when we put the kids to bed, but that doesn’t always happen.”

Camilla Cabello told me she starts her day by reading the Daily Stoic email (which you can sign up for here) and then one page from The Daily Stoic. Me personally, I try to get some exercise in the morning and I for sure write in the morning. My assistant knows not to schedule calls or meetings in the morning because they make it too easy to let the day get away from you. They sap your willpower early. By tackling writing first, by getting some time outside (with the kids usually) first, I have already won the day and everything else is extra from there. Well-intentioned plans fall apart. Our willpower evaporates. So it’s key that we prioritize the important things and we habitualize doing them early.

Set a Bedtime

All the other habits and practices listed here become irrelevant if you don’t have the energy and clarity to do them. What time you wake up tomorrow is irrelevant…if you didn’t get enough sleep tonight. One thing every parent knows is that kids are a mess when they don’t sleep. But for some reason, we think we’re different. We think we can get away with pulling an all-nighter here and there. We think we can substitute stimulants for sleep. Nonsense. We only have so much energy for our work, for our relationships, for ourselves. A smart person understands this and guards their sleep carefully. The greats—they protect their sleep because their best work depends on it. The clearer they can think and the better their mental and physical state—the better they perform. In other words, the more sleep, the better. The philosopher and writer Arthur Schopenhauer used to say that “sleep is the source of all health and energy.” Certainly, no one is thriving who is not sleeping enough. If you want to have a good year, if you want to be up and at ‘em in the morning, start small, choose a bedtime.

Say No To Say Yes

A few years ago, Dr. Jonathan Fader, an elite sports psychologist who spent nearly a decade with the New York Mets, gave me a picture of Oliver Sacks. Sacks is in his office speaking on the phone, and behind him is a large sign that just says, “NO!” I have that photo hanging on the wall in my office now. On either side of it, hang pictures of each of my sons. I can see them—all three photos—out of the corner of my eye even as I am writing this. I recently added to this motif with a small memo signed by Harry S. Truman, shortly after he became president. His secretary wrote to ask whether they needed to start saying no to things with all the demands he had on his schedule. That is the correct response, he wrote back. I just love the energy of that and the history of it (and the insane fact that it only cost a few hundred bucks to get such a unique piece of history). These physical reminders make it impossible to avoid considering each opportunity and each ask carefully. What’s at stake is my finite resources. So are yours!

Discipline Now, Freedom Later

The famous line from Musonius Rufus was that labor passes quickly but the fruit of labor endures. It’s the same with discipline: the vigilance is temporary, but the fruit of that vigilance can be enjoyed long after the sacrifice has been forgotten. When you’re on the fence about going for a long run or working on a big project, remind yourself: discipline now, freedom later. The labor will pass, and the rewards will last.

Lay Out Your Supplies

Our mornings at home go best when the kids’ clothes have been chosen the night before, sometimes even for the whole week. We get out of the house with less trouble on mornings where the lunches have been packed the night before. When I get to my desk in the morning, the three journals I write in are sitting right there. If I want to skip the habit, I have to pick them up and move them aside. So most mornings I don’t move them, and I write in them. You can use the same strategy if, for example, you want to start running in the morning. Place your shoes, shorts, and jacket next to your bed or in the doorway of your bedroom so you can put them on immediately. You’ll be less likely to take the easy way out if it’s embarrassingly simple to do the thing you want to do. The same applies with meals. Pack your lunch the night before and you’re less likely to order spur of the moment takeout.

Create Positive Peer Pressure

The proverb in the ancient world was: “If you dwell with a lame man, you will learn how to limp.” It’s a pretty observable truth. We become like the people we spend the most time with. In his book Atomic Habits, James Clear talks about the importance of who you surround yourself with. ”One of the most effective things you can do to build better habits is to join a culture where your desired behavior is the normal behavior,” Clear writes. “Your culture sets your expectation for what is ‘normal.’ Surround yourself with people who have the habits you want to have yourself. You’ll rise together.” As Goethe says: Show me who you spend time with and I will show you who you are.”

Keep Coming Back

The path to self-improvement is rocky, and slipping and tripping is inevitable. You’ll forget to do the push-ups, you’ll cheat on your diet, you’ll say “yes” and take on too much, or you’ll get sucked into the rabbit hole of Twitter. That’s okay. It doesn’t mean you’re a bad person. You’re only a bad person if you give up. As the great Samuel Johnson wrote in his diary near the end of 1775 with a New Year on the horizon,

“When I look back on resolutions of improvement and amendment which have year after year been made and broken, either by negligence, forgetfulness, vicious idleness, casual interruption, or morbid infirmity; when I find that so much of my life has stolen unprofitably away, and that I can descry by retrospection scarcely a few single days properly and vigorously employed, why do I yet try to resolve again? I try because reformation is necessary and despair is criminal.”

No one is perfect. We all have bad days. It’s okay to feel a little discouraged. But to give up? To not even try? That is criminal. “Disgraceful,” Marcus Aurelius would say, “for the soul to give up when the body is still going strong.”

All of us have fallen short in the last year…and the years before that. We broke our resolutions. We made the same mistakes again and again. We were “jarred, unavoidably, by circumstances,” as Marcus said. But now it’s time to pick ourselves up and try again. It’s time, Marcus continues, to “revert at once to yourself, and don’t lose the rhythm more than you can help. You’ll have a better group of harmony if you keep on going back to it.”

In other words, when you mess up, come back to the habits you’ve been working on. Come back to the ideas here in this post. Don’t quit just because you’re not perfect. No one is saying you have to magically transform yourself in 2022, but if you’re not making progress toward the person you want to be, what are you doing? And, more importantly, when are you planning to do it?

I’ll leave you with Epictetus, who spoke so eloquently about feeding the right habit bonfire. It’s the perfect passage to recite as we set out to begin a new year, hopefully, as better people.

From now on, then, resolve to live as a grown-up who is making progress, and make whatever you think best a law that you never set aside. And whenever you encounter anything that is difficult or pleasurable, or highly or lowly regarded, remember that the contest is now: you are at the Olympic Games, you cannot wait any longer…

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