I don’t know you, but I know this: You have habits. There are certain behaviors you repeat every single day of your life.
One of them I can guess right off the bat: Reading. But I know even more about you, despite you and I never having met.
Every day, you wake up, get out of bed, brush your teeth, get dressed, open a window or leave your house, eat and drink, use the internet through your phone or laptop, and then, later, repeat some variation of that sequence in reverse.
Whoa! That’s a lot of data for someone halfway around the world who doesn’t know your name. And even though the picture gets blurrier from there, it’s enough data to tell me something else about you, something you might not know about yourself or at least not be acutely aware of all the time:
The outcomes of your life are determined by your habits. Your behavioral patterns dictate your destiny. They’re patterns of action, patterns of emotion, and patterns of thought — but they’re all patterns. They repeat.
It’s this repetition that steers you, like a pair of invisible hands, towards certain destinations but not others. Your habits can lead you to fame, fortune, and success. They can carry you to meaning, love, and happiness. Your habits can also drive you into depression, loneliness, and anxiety. They can drop you into poverty, darkness, and push you right off a cliff.
You might not think much of your habits, not think much about them at all, but your habits don’t just matter — your habits are everything.
How happy you are is a result of your habits. How much money you make, have, and keep is a result of your habits. How healthy you are compared to how healthy you could be, how many friends you have, to an extent even how long you’ll live — it’s all a result of your habits — and if you don’t pay attention to them, if you don’t observe, assess, and consciously shape your patterns, they will drive you off that cliff.
Understanding this takes more than nodding and saying, “Okay, I get it, routines matter.” It’s about grasping, accepting, and truly living by the one thing I’m here to tell you:
Your habits are your only weapon in your lifelong struggle for meaning, happiness, and making the most of your time.
That’s a pretty big statement, and it comes with big implications. Yes, the breadth of challenges we have to address through our habits is stunning, but, thankfully, they’re also the only weapon we need.
Once you see the magnitude on which they operate, I’m sure you’ll understand.
Voting for Who We’ll Become
In the movie Yes Man, Jim Carrey plays a bitter divorcé — Carl — who stumbles into a self-help movement that’s all about saying “yes.” The leader of the movement forces him to make a vow to say “yes” to any and every request.
Instantly, it gets Carl into trouble. First, he must give a homeless man a ride to a remote place. Then, the guy drains his phone battery and asks for all his money. After walking miles to the next gas station, however, Carl’s luck begins to turn. A cute girl offers him a ride on her scooter — and even leaves him with a goodnight kiss.
In Atomic Habits, James Clear says, “True behavior change is identity change.” We don’t think of habits this way because, usually, we’re focused on goals — a certain outcome or measurable result. The reality, however, is that, first, we have to become the kind of person who can achieve said outcome.
Over the course of the movie, that’s exactly what happens to Carl. There are 103 variations of the word “no” in the script, most of which drop in the first half of the film. What follows is a series of 94 yeses, by the end of which Carl has become a different person: A guy who says “yes” to what life has to offer.
We don’t expect our small choices to have much of an impact, let alone change who we are, but they add up. “Every action you take is a vote for the type of person you want to become,” Clear says in an interview.
Having a cigarette once in a while isn’t bad because of the pinch of tobacco, it’s destructive because each one sends a tiny signal that says, “I am a smoker.” Sooner or later, you might find yourself buying a pack a day. In the same way, it doesn’t matter if you only write one tweet a day for a month when, actually, you want to write a book. The tweets turn you into a writer and, at first, that’s all that matters.
Just like new habits slowly change your self-image, slowly changing your self-image will lead to new habits. That’s why, initially, it’s best to focus your energy on a small identity change rather than a big behavior change.
When Carl seeks out the leader of the movement for guidance, that’s exactly what he tells him:
“[Saying yes to everything], that’s not the point. Well, maybe at first it is. But that’s just to open you up, to get you started. Then, you are saying ‘yes’ not because you have to, not because a covenant told you to, but because you know in your heart that you want to.”
Every action is a vote for who you want to become. You’re voting whether you like it or not. We all do. The habits we choose today will determine what actions we’ll take tomorrow. Make sure you use your right to vote.
Who Will You Be When You Can’t Help It?
At the beginning of the movie, Carl hates his boss, Norman. For one, he calls himself ‘Norm’ and Carl ‘Car.’ Also, Norm is way too upbeat for their boring jobs as loan officers. He’s quirky, full of bad puns, and invites Carl to cheesy costume parties all the time (which he never attends).
Once Carl starts saying “yes,” however, not just to Norm’s parties but also to showing up at work on a Saturday and taking on extra tasks, something inside him shifts. He starts joking around with Norm. He likes it. He likes Norm. Yet nothing about Norm had changed.
Carl hated Norm simply because he was “the kind of person who hates people.” In this case, Norm’s behavior had little impact on their relationship — it was Carl’s interpretation of it that dictated the outcome.
This goes back to our habits affecting our identity, and it has profound implications for how we interpret the events in our lives. If our habits change our identity, and our identity informs how we make sense of the world, our habits also decide how we see others, and how they see us.
By shutting himself in and avoiding work, Carl slowly became a loner which, in turn, made him perceive his boss as annoying. The small, daily actions he took ultimately decided how he explained to himself what was going on around him. Clear calls this “negative compounding,” in this case of thoughts:
The more you think of yourself as worthless, stupid, or ugly, the more you condition yourself to interpret life that way. You get trapped in a thought loop. The same is true for how you think about others. Once you fall into the habit of seeing people as angry, unjust, or selfish, you see those kind of people everywhere.
This sends an important message, a warning as well as a call to action: Even though it didn’t feel like it, through his habits, Carl was in control of his worldview — and so are we.
Your habits determine how you will interpret your life’s events. By the time they happen, it’s too late to throw in a quick change. You have to react based on who you are in the moment. If you’re not already “a non-smoker” when that Friday night cigarette is offered to you, you’re unlikely to turn it down.
On a long enough time scale, however, you can change what perspective you default to when confronted with any given situation — and you do so less by talking to yourself than by working on your habits. Riffing on a Charles Francis Potter quote, we could say:
Be the person you aspire to be when you can so you’ll continue to be that person even when you think you can’t. Or, in the words of Lao Tzu:
Do the difficult things while they are easy and do the great things while they are small. A journey of a thousand miles must begin with a single step.
Without Attention, Time Doesn’t Matter
Every morning, Carl grabs a coffee at the same cafe. Each time he leaves the building, there’s a guy handing out flyers for a concert. Of course, Carl’s canned response is “no.”
After starting his deal with the universe, however, he grabs the flyer and agrees. Lo and behold, who’s the singer of the band? The girl that kissed him after he got stranded.
Zat Rana argues that our most important asset isn’t time but attention:
The quality of the experiences in your life doesn’t depend on how many hours there are in the day, but in how the hours you have are used. […] Although time is indeed limited, with attention, it can be diluted to expand beyond what most other people get out of the same quantity.
What’s better? A life of 80 years, spent in a half-conscious daze, or a life of 40 years, spent in intense focus on what matters to you? Time is just a measure. Having and spending more of it provides no indication of quality. Without attention, time doesn’t matter.
In Carl’s case, his habits had closed his mind to such an extent that he wasn’t able to see anything. Not the good. Not the bad. Even what was right in front of him. He just passed through time, indifferent and oblivious.
Only once he changed his habits did Carl start perceiving again. Everything before was just a muffled thump of pain. It hurt here, it hurt there, it hurt everywhere — because he never paid attention and could thus never identify what hurt him and why.
In the interview, Clear says, “Habits are the portion of your life you can influence.” They’re also the portion that determines what happens with your time while you don’t control your attention — and how much of the latter you even have.
“Good habits make time your ally. Bad habits make time your enemy.”
Just like your identity shapes how you interpret what happens, your attitudes and beliefs — call them interpretation presets — shape what you perceive — and all three are greatly affected by your habits.
When Carl acted like an isolated atom, he couldn’t see life as something that contains opportunities and he couldn’t see his boss as a person. He had to accept his connection with the world, that he was an integrated part of it, as we all are, in order to get his attention back. This happened through many small acts — approving a loan, meeting his friends, taking that guy’s flyer — but it created an identity shift that rippled through his entire life.
The rest of the movie is really just one thing: Carl being mindful wherever he goes. He notices the stability of his tempurpedic mattress. He notices the offers to learn Korean, playing guitar, and flying an aircraft. He notices his crush having a hard time opening up, the wedding planner being sad, the guy on the ledge just needing a friend. His new habits maximized his attention to life and to watch it blossom is mesmerizing.
What’s more, instead of defaulting into pitying himself on the couch whenever nothing’s happening, he now follows through on his promises. He looks out for his friends. Even when Carl isn’t acting deliberately, he’s a better person, and that’s why time now works in his favor.
Pay attention to your habits because your habits direct your attention. Good habits maximize how much of life you can absorb and where you go when you’re not looking. Try to cultivate good habits.
You Go Where You Look
When I turned 18, my parents gave me a driver’s training along with my newly earned license. Little did I know that, a few years later, I would need it.
It was entirely my fault — I fiddled with my iPod — but, one day, I nearly veered off the road. As the tire hit the curb, I felt a vibration. I looked at the ditch, looked at the road and, instinctively, pulled the steering wheel to the left, returning to where I belonged.
Somehow, I had internalized it before, but, since that day, I have never forgotten the biggest lesson from my training: You go where you look.
It’s a little phrase that universally applies, as John P. Weiss recently noted in analyzing the work of Tim McGraw:
We go where we look. It’s such a simple truth. Just five words, but its wisdom holds the key to achieving greater focus. According to McGraw, we need to look ourselves in the eye, accept where we’re starting from today, push aside all the noise and negative self-talk, and go where we’re looking.
My near-accident was a literal reminder that, without attention, we can’t choose where we’re going — and we can fall off track pretty fast.
Identity, interpretation, attention. At the end of the day, your habits steer all three of these. They all work in tandem and mutually influence one another, but, together, they determine what you think, feel, and do — every second of every waking minute of your life. That’s why your habits are everything. Your habits will determine your destiny.
Clear called his book “Atomic Habits” because, like atoms, habits are small in size, part of a larger whole, and, yet, a source of tremendous energy. “Your outcomes in life are a lagging measure of your habits,” he says. Luckily, we have a great deal of control over our habits and, thus, all these lagging measures.
I wonder what Carl would have to say about this statement. Then again, I guess he’d only need one word: “Yes.”