In the last few years, there were 3 books that profoundly influenced me and together pushed me in a whole new direction, with respect to both life philosophy and career interests. As part of writing Habit Driven Life, a series of essays that I might turn into a book, I wanted to share these three life changers with you.
The first was Charles Duhigg’s The Power of Habit [Amazon aff]. Here’s my cheatsheet for it. Charles’s book taught me that if your life is a house, then habits are its brick and mortar. Brick by brick, layer by layer, habit by habit, you construct the building that is your life. Your creation can be a wobbly shack or it can be a rock walled mansion. It all depends on your habits.
The book was filled with mental lightbulbs. One lightbulb that shined brightest for me was a concept known as keystone habits. Like the keystone which is placed at the top of a stone arch, holding the arch together, keystone habits are behaviors upon which other behaviors rely. For example, in a group of good friends, there is often one person who does all the planning and organizing. Without her there might not be a group, or the group would socialize far less often. Keystone habits work like this. An example of a keystone habit for me is daily exercise. Every day that I can go for a long run, I am happier and more relaxed. I have a better appetite. I sleep better. I can almost feel the mental cobwebs being dusted off and wiped away with each mile.
After reading The Power of Habit, I began to think of a day as just a sequence of habits. If you haven’t programmed your habits, then your habits are programming you. Habits create outcomes, good or bad. If you don’t wake up early and feel refreshed, it’s because you don’t have the habit of going to bed early and sleeping under the right conditions (such as a very dark and quiet room). If you don’t build your favorite side project, it’s because you haven’t created the right routines in your schedule and in your environment to do so. If you want to accomplish your dreams, you absolutely MUST set the right habits.
Some of us are lucky enough to have good habits from childhood, learned from our parents or teachers or coaches. But everyone can improve their habits. And good habits, no matter how sturdy, can break, fall apart, require maintenance. Just like a house.
Building the right habits requires experimentation and patience and, above all, repetition. You simply make your bed each morning, morning after morning. A year later, one random morning, you’ll leave your bedroom and walk into the kitchen. You’ll have a moment where you wonder, wait a minute – did I make my bed? And you’ll walk back to your bedroom to discover that the bed’s already been made.
You, my friend, have got yourself a new habit.
It’s a great feeling.
Here’s aspiring comedian Brad Isaac telling a story about Jerry Seinfeld and the habit that helped him become the world’s richest standup comic:
He said the way to be a better comic was to create better jokes and the way to create better jokes was to write every day. He told me to get a big wall calendar that has a whole year on one page and hang it on a prominent wall. The next step was to get a big red magic marker. He said for each day that I do my task of writing, I get to put a big red X over that day.
“After a few days you’ll have a chain. Just keep at it and the chain will grow longer every day. You’ll like seeing that chain, especially when you get a few weeks under your belt. Your only job is to not break the chain.”
The second book was John Ratey’s Spark [Amazon aff]. Here’s its cheatsheet. Spark convinced me that regular aerobic exercise could alleviate and cure almost everything that began to plague me in my late 20s: growing social anxiety, a sometimes depressive mindset, the heavy lethargy that enveloped me like a fast moving fog on many afternoons. The book provided just the – spark – I needed to get out of the house and run. And as I mentioned above, running has rewired my life.
Spark is the sort of book that’s like a wise grandfather. It tells you what you kinda-sorta-already know, but finally, for the first time, you truly listen. Your heart and soul open, and the book gets into you, and it tweaks and adjusts and cleans things like a mechanic.
The third and final book was Religion for Atheists [Amazon aff]. The author Alain de Botton asks, how can we live better by studying the world’s enduring religions? He submits, in convincing fashion, that religious traditions from Buddhism to Judaism are enduring sources of wisdom and self-help. I’m a big fan of Alain’s work.
As you study organized religions, digging through and within their infinite layers, you see that each tradition is a massive collections of habits. From prayer to sacrament, from weekly sermon to annual pilgrimage, religion-as-institution just might be the most enduring and comprehensive collection of habits we’ve ever assembled. Religion is belief, and religion is ritual. And ritual is a collection of habits, in much the same way a football team is a collection of players.
A devout Muslim prays at five precise times each and every day, in a highly prescribed and structured manner. What actions do I perform five times a day? Only the most fundamental ones: eat, drink, use the restroom, check my email. Talk about power and influence. Hinduism has been around for 4K years. What else but the most essential technologies have lasted this long? The written word? The wheel? Certainly not the oldest American corporation (DuPont, about 200 years old) or even the world’s oldest university (depending on who you ask, about 1000 years old).
Now of course religion can go very wrong. But so can any other set of powerful and lasting beliefs. After all, democracy and capitalism are two pillars upon which America today stands, but it was these same engines that propelled us to take our land, with violence, from the very people who had been living there, while also capturing and importing millions of others to serve as slave labor for centuries. Two enormous tragedies from which we’ve yet to fully recover. Both driven by, and justified by, the ideologies upon which we’re so reliant today.
But I digress.
Upon finishing Religion for Atheists, I downloaded and read the Bhagavad Gita, in awe of its lyric beauty and incomparable scope. I started to attend church, which is a fulfilling but not-yet-regular habit. I deepened my meditation practice. Slowly, most importantly, I began to have faith: not in a powerful, bearded man who sits high above the clouds and renders judgment, but rather in a force that is both far simpler and yet more magical. The simple belief that there is something greater than us in the world. By us, I mean you and I.
The single danger of life in a godless society is that it lacks reminders of the transcendent and therefore leaves us unprepared for disappointment and eventual annihilation. When God is dead, human beings – much to their detriment – are at risk of taking psychological centre stage – Alain de Botton
If Power of Habit gave me understanding and Spark gave me inspiration, Religion for Atheists provided purpose. I felt driven to understand and share religious wisdom, wisdom that has, for the most part, been isolated and kept within silos.
I believe we can and should learn from all of the religious traditions. Whether you’re Catholic or agnostic, Hindu or Wiccan or atheist. Many people are already doing this, even if they don’t see it as such. From yoga to meditation to pilgrimage, from vegetarianism to tithing to universal compassion, religious ideas and rituals are everywhere in modern secular society. And everywhere being rebranded and reinvented for reasons that are as difficult to explain as they are easy to understand.
So these three books: Power of Habit, Spark, and Religion for Atheists. I hope you browse them, I hope you read them, I hope you enjoy them or at least are challenged by them. And I hope you let me know. Thanks!
Hi! I write about habits and spirituality and random whatevers. Click here to see the daily habits that I track. Find me on Twitter @kgao.