The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People is one of the best-selling books of all time. The advice is solid, but there’s one huge problem with it: the title.
Having sold some 25 million copies and still spreading at over 100,000 searches per month, it forever continues to etch four ideas into our minds:
- There is an ideal combination of habits that causes success.
- That combination is finite.
- That combination is timeless.
- That combination is the same for everyone.
Sadly, none of these ideas are true. Let’s address them one by one.
What We Look For in Habit Bundles
In late 2016, 13-year-old Danielle Bregoli went on Dr. Phil with her mother. One sassy line later, she was a media sensation. The internet abounds with viral case studies like the “Cash Me Outside” girl, which is the first thing that should give us pause when relating success to habits.
Was it really her continued, bad behavior that led her to 15 million Instagram followers and a record deal? Or the fact that said behavior was on national TV at the right time? Maybe, it’s not so much the combination of our habits, but of our circumstances, that turns our efforts into hits and misses.
And yet, our habits do influence these circumstances. What’s curious is that we insist on bundling them when determining how much.
Imagine a writer’s perfect routine was to wake up, brush her teeth, then write. If it’s the overall blend that’s ideal, each deviation would lead to work that’s worse. But it’s easy to imagine that if she skipped brushing her teeth, nothing would change. It’s the writing that counts. At the same time, she might one day add a habit, like an afternoon run, that does improve her performance.
Most of the time, what we look for in habit bundles is support for the one constant that matters. But in doing so, we add complexity that soon clouds the importance of the very thing that works. One day you wake up earlier to write more, the next you do a 7-step morning routine, but forget the writing.
The more variables you consider together, the less likely it becomes that your hypothesis is right. Be happy if you find one habit that works. That allows you to push for better and better circumstances. To change the odds in your favor.
Because even if you do it forever, it’ll still take luck to make it on Dr. Phil.
Thinking Is an Infinite Habit
Being paid by the hour sucks. Besides making me feel like a machine, it also assumes I am one. That everyone doing that task delivers the same, uniform output of equal quality. Worse, it neglects that knowledge compounds.
If it takes me an hour to write an article, was that an hour or an hour plus four years of writing? Actually, it was all of that plus 27 years of life experience.
“In the same way that we form habits of action relating to our environment, we also form habits of thought when it comes to how we think about the world.”
What Zat Rana hints at is not just that thinking is habitual too, but that our patterns of thought cascade, informing everything we do, as well as how we process each experience. And while we sometimes get stuck in these mental loops, the brain is in a constant state of change. Thinking is an infinite habit.
We want to believe that, if only we did the same three, five, ten things each day, we’d inevitably find success. But that was never an option in the first place. Because even if we did, the way we think about these things, and, thus, do them, would change. The only mind that doesn’t evolve is one that’s dead.
The question is if yours is getting better.
Habits Are Both Causes and Effects
When I first learned about habits, I thought I would run some experiments, then, eventually, settle on one of the many finite, ideal sets we now know don’t exist. But while each habit mattered for a time, I’d always find myself in need of another one. Or had to let one go. Because it didn’t serve me anymore.
What I learned was that habits are both causes and effects. Deliberately adopting a habit will alter the outcomes of your life, but some of these altered outcomes will also change which habits you’ll want or have to adopt. Just like the right combination only exists at fixed points in time, so do the ideal moments of when to adjust it. If our writer is about to catch a cold, even the most inspiring afternoon run will negatively impact her output the next day.
Trends change how business works. History changes how the world works. Time changes how we work. And all of it requires changing our habits. So rather than trying to extract timeless practices, we should focus on being malleable. On not resisting our brain’s desire to upgrade itself.
Take a snapshot of any successful person’s current habits and ask: how many times must that set have changed to get them where they are? By the time you answer, it’ll have changed again.
Our total amount of data now doubles each year. In such a world, learning isn’t optional. It’s necessary. Day by day, adaptation replaces information. And as intelligence overtakes knowledge, old behaviors must make way for new ones. They’ll either stop working for you or the world you live in, but they will.
The person who’s unfazed by that is the person who can shape habits at will.
Why Polar Opposites Work
Richard Branson had no intention of starting Virgin Atlantic. As a ruse to impress his future wife, he claimed wanting to buy Necker Island, which they were promptly thrown off of when the owner found out they lacked the money. Their return flight was canceled, so he chartered a plane, sold out the seats, and the rest is history. Jack Ma, however, had every intention of reaching every single Chinese citizen when starting Alibaba.
Bill Gates, Elon Musk, and Warren Buffett are avid readers. Gary Vaynerchuk, Steve Jobs, and Kanye? Not so much. Edison trashed 1,000 experiments, James Altucher 18 businesses, and Marylin Monroe both her pin-up and her modeling career. J.K. Rowling went to over ten publishers, Bocelli played at bars till age 33, and Tolkien released Lord of the Rings when he was over 60.
To quit or not to quit? To read or not to read? To set goals or to have fun? The reason all of these work despite being polar opposites is the truth we’ve been building towards with this article:
Take Arianna Huffington’s habit of sleeping eight hours per night. We can observe that habit only because it’s pronounced. Noticeable. The same goes for all distinct behaviors and character traits we see when we look at our idols.
If an attribute endures, it’s because at some point that person decided it was either a strength of theirs they should double down on or a weakness they shouldn’t bother trying to resolve. We can’t know which is which, but we can point to one trait and corresponding behavior that facilitates such insights.
That habit — the one all logic and data point to — is practicing self-awareness.
A Task Designed Uniquely For You
Ideas being wrong has never stopped our culture from growing around them.
The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People is just one of many books, people, and trends that the $10 billion self-help industry is built upon, but it’s an epitome of the world we now live in: The demand for common behavior patterns leading to worldly success is sky high, and educators are happy to supply.
And while the 200 million search results for “habits of successful people” are, for all intents and purposes, 200 million different ones, maybe they should be. At least this mess forces us into independent inquiry. If we summarize our four refutations of those initial ideas, it seems that’s exactly what we need:
- You’ll still need luck before and after, but if you find one or two behaviors that move you into the right direction, those are usually enough.
- You can’t possibly maintain the same habits forever based solely on the fact that your thinking keeps changing. Focus on trying to make it better.
- Your habits are cause-and-effect relationships between you and your environment. Keep analyzing both to know when to change and how.
- Separating your habits into useful and not useful is a task bestowed uniquely on you and only doing it will reveal the right consistencies.
Even in humans, self-awareness is a rare trait. Children develop the basis of this ability, self-perception, only at 15–18 months old. In cultures less focused on the individual it happens much later still, sometimes not till age six.
Our Western concept of success is far from perfect, but it comes with a lot of freedom and room for self-expression. If that’s what you want, self-awareness is one of few catalysts that has a meaningful chance of helping you get there.
Practicing to observe your own existence and its interaction with the world can take many forms, such as walking, reading, and meditating. You could keep a journal, engage in thought experiments, or track your behavior.
The underlying task, however, is regularly setting aside time to think. As long as you do that, The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, too, will be a great read.
Just do yourself a favor and ignore the title.