The Spiral of Successful Habits

By Leo Babauta

Many people have so many things they want to change about their lives they don’t know where to start.

It’s overwhelming: you might smoke and eat junk food and need to exercise and want to be more productive and eliminate debt and start doing work you love and simplify your life to find time for your family and find things to be passionate about …

Where do you start?

It’s doable — this is where I was five years ago. One by one I changed my habits:

The list goes on. I’m not trying to brag but to show it’s possible. I did all this with six kids and three jobs (with tons of help from my wife Eva of course).

Many of you might be in a desperate place like I was. A reader named Craig recently wrote:

“The last 5-7 years have just been complete hell for me mentally, physically, and financially. Prior to then I was a confident young man who was able to do anything that he put his mind to. I’m not sure exactly how everything just seemed to go down hill for me, but now I have all but lost my self confidence, I suffer from stress and anxiety, I am probably about 30-40 lbs overweight, I’m a pack a day smoker, and to be honest I can’t stand to look at myself in the mirror these days.”

He continued:

“Every morning I wake up with butterflies in my stomach because it’s almost like I’m afraid to even face the day. I often sleep too late and I just all around feel like crap in the morning. I have tried all kinds of different things to try to fix this issue but nothing has worked. I just wish I could start my day off on a better note.”

He then asked the key question: “How were you able to kick start your life back in 2005 and begin your journey to a better more productive life? How are you able to get up in the morning, jump out if bed, and start your day on a positive note?”

In 2005 I was in a bad place in my life with so many changes I needed to make that it was utterly overwhelming and discouraging.

Then I made one of the smartest decisions of my life (aside from marrying Eva):

I chose just one habit.

The other habits would come later. Starting with just one habit accomplished four important things:

  1. It became much more manageable. One habit is doable — 15 habits are too hard.
  2. It gave me focus. I could pour all my energies into one thing. When you have too many habits you’re trying to change it diffuses your energies and you most often fail.
  3. It taught me how to change habits — and then I could apply that knowledge to the next habit change.
  4. It allowed me to succeed and then use that energy and enthusiasm to succeed at the next thing.

Every single one of these is incredibly important. I won’t go into much depth for the first three things because I feel they’re self-evident. But the last one is so important that it deserves a little discussion (see below).

Which Habit to Choose

I started with quitting smoking because it seemed the most urgent to me. Looking back it was also the hardest habit to quit. I might recommend an easier habit to get started with.

But the truth is it doesn’t matter much. If you have 15 habits you want to change and they all seem important then just pick one randomly.

Here’s the thing: in the long scheme it doesn’t matter a lick which one you started with. Five years from now you’re going to look back on all the habits you’ve changed and the order you started with won’t make a difference. Right now it seems to matter but you’re not in this for just this month — you’re in this for life.

Pick one. Any one. I’d suggest an easy one. The important thing isn’t that you choose the right habit but that you start.

Spiral of Success

Picking one habit allows you to succeed and build on that success. That’s more important than you might think if you haven’t done that before.

I read a book by Bill Gates in the 90s where he talked about his “Spiral of Success”. He built MS-DOS and that succeeded so he leveraged that success for MS-Word and then Windows and then Windows 95 and then Excel and Office and Internet Explorer and so on (the order might be wrong here but that’s not important).

Now I’m not a big Bill Gates fan. But the concept is true not only in business but in anything you do: your success with one habit will make you feel great. You’ll be so excited by that you’ll want to try another. If you focus on just one habit you’ll succeed at that too and you can then build on that and so on.

Soon you’ll be rocking the world and people will ask you how you did it. You don’t have to mention my name but you should mention Bill Gates’ name — credit where it’s due.

More Reading

I don’t have space to get into everything you need to know … but I would highly recommend reading these four articles:

  1. How to Be a Positive Person, in Under 300 Words
  2. the insidious perfidiousness of doubts, overcome
  3. The Habit Change Cheatsheet: 29 Ways to Successfully Ingrain a Behavior
  4. The One Deadly Sin of Changing Habits