People do not decide their futures, they decide their habits, and their habits decide their futures.
Usually, successful people tend to implement positive habits in their day to day lives. The value of these habits can’t be understated. Like compound interest in a savings account, the small choices and behaviors you make in your personal life builds up over time, shaping your future.
Habits can support success, or they can limit it. Habits can be unskilful and restrictive, or they can be deliberately crafted to lift you up and make sure you’re moving in the right direction. Whether we’re talking about a daily to-do list, positive self-talk, morning habits or others, you should ask yourself: what habits do you cultivate, and what habits should you let go of?
One way is to explore what most successful people have in common. By understanding the habits of successful people, you can apply similar approaches to your own life. While it isn’t as easy as copying highly successful people and expecting identical results, applying the right habits, in the right way, will boost your chances of success.
A good habit can be the foundation of self-improvement, and a building block for a successful existence. If you’re looking for the best habits that have a huge impact on your well being, we’ve got you covered. Of course, without application, knowing the right habits won’t have much of an effect. So we’ll also explore the best ways to apply new habits to your life.
What is a habit?
The Merriam-Webster definition of habit is “an acquired mode of behavior that has become nearly or completely involuntary” or “a settled tendency or usual manner of behavior.”
Habits are so powerful and influential because they are acted out in ways that are instinctive. They’re behaviors or thinking patterns are so ingrained, that you don’t have to spend too much time thinking about them — it’s as if they take care of themselves.
Almost half our habits are habitual
There’s a lot of scientific evidence behind the role of habits in behavior. Psychologist Wendy Wood, Ph.D., from the University of Southern California (USC), is one of the world’s leading researchers on the topic. Her work has discovered that around 43 percent of daily behaviors are habitual, taking place when our minds are occupied with other things.
Throughout decades of research, Wood discovered that for many people, their attitude, values, and desires don’t match their behavior. That’s because people tend to underestimate the power of habits, and even though they get a clear idea of how they’d like to change, their habits aren’t supporting that change.
Another leading thinker in the field is James Clear, who wrote the bestselling book, Atomic Habits. For Clear, habits are the elixir of growth and successful living. “When you learn to transform your habits,” he writes, “you can transform your life.”
There’s a lot of truth to this statement. Without habitual behavior, you wouldn’t be able to stick to a routine (think of all those New Year’s resolutions that disappear by February). A success habit integrated into your daily routine is one of the most effective ways to set yourself up for success, and habits are the building blocks. In the other direction, negative people tend to have negative habits, and so it’s important to choose your habits wisely.
But before continuing, let’s take a second to pause and reflect on success for some better mental clarity on the general subject.
What is a successful life?
It’s easy to get caught up in the desire to model the habits of a successful person, without taking the time to clarify what success means for you. In our culture, many habits of successful people are related to those who demonstrate high levels of productivity, wealth, acclaim, or resilience.
Generally speaking, we think of successful people as those who are able to achieve their most important goals (see our article on SMART goals for more info on the subject). They’re the people who overcome procrastination, fear, and the hurdles life throws in the way, in order to pursue their dreams. Habits, in many ways, are the bridge between a vision and making that vision a reality, which successful people excel at.
But there is an issue with the primary culture image of success; a lot of the time, it depends on results and outcomes. For example, millions of people view Jeff Bezos as a success due to his business success and wealth. Yet such is the nature of business and life, a million people could copy Bezos, by the book, without reaching his level of income or exposure.
As as a verb
I view success as a verb, not a noun. Every moment is an opportunity to do something successfully. That’s because success is a matter of perspective. If you write a book that doesn’t sell many copies, does it mean it wasn’t successful? Isn’t the ability to write a book — to bridge the vision and make that vision a reality — a successful process?
All the habits required to write the book, from setting consistent time to write (perhaps up to eight hours a day), to making sure you stay focused, are successful habits. They serve to support you in reaching your goal.
Define your own success
So, start by being clear on what success looks like for you. It might be starting your own business, getting in physical shape, raising a child. Success can be intrinsic, too, such as living a life that is aligned to your values or being authentic in the way you communicate. However this looks for you will inform what habits are necessary to make this successful life a reality.
How do you apply daily habits to your life?
Seeing habits as a bridge allows you to get a clearer idea of what behaviors move you closer to your goals, and what behaviors move you away from your goals. Using the example of physical fitness, the habit of late-night snacking is one that’ll move you away from your goals. While the habit of running or going to the gym multiple times each week will serve your goals.
Before these behaviors become habit, there’s a period of strain in making deep-rooted, often subconscious changes.
It’s not as straightforward as stopping the habit with awareness alone. Wood’s research discovered that context is key — habits are usually triggered by different cues, and one way to break habits is to control those cues. James Clear’s work explores similar approaches. He identifies the “Three Rs” of habit change:
The reminder is the trigger, the routine is the go-to behavior in response to the trigger, and the reward is the benefit you get from the behavior. For example, if you walk past a bakery, you might smell freshly baked doughnuts (the reminder). The routine would be to buy one to satisfy the craving, with the reward being the satisfaction of the craving.
Replace bad with good
Clear recommends replacing a bad habit with a good one. Satisfying the craving for unhealthy food can be replaced by a mindful practice of noticing craving without acting upon it. If work-related stress causes you to drink alcohol or smoke to relieve tension, the trigger of stress can be transformed into a cue to take a walk outside or practice deep breathing exercises.
Combined with removing triggers and being aware of your environment, it becomes much easier to transform bad habits into good habits. With that in mind, what are the good habits that successful people follow? What habits can you introduce to support you in skillful ways?
7 habits of successful people
Good habits set you up for a life of success and wellness all across the board. Whether it’s building confidence in your ability to execute your goals, overcoming unhelpful behaviors, experiencing more energy through exercise more and a well-balanced diet, habits don’t only pay off in the long run, they directly benefit your daily routine.
While good habits don’t guarantee the same results as successful people, you can guarantee successful people have good habits. With that in mind, the following 7 habits act as the foundation of the majority of people who are able to excel, in one way or another. They’re tried and tested, have shown results for multiple people, and have as much influence on who you are, as well as who you will one day become.
1. Having a positive attitude
“For a habit to stay changed, people must believe change is possible,” Charles Duhigg writes in The Power of Habit. The belief that change is possible begins with a positive attitude, or, in other terms, a growth mindset. Successful people know they’re not the victims of bad habits, they know they can overcome them. This belief comes before any action is taken.
Part of having a positive attitude is being patient and forgiving towards yourself through the process of making new behaviors habitual. Some forms of therapy operate on this principle. Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT), for example, changes thinking habits by reframing them. You will have setbacks, and that’s fine. How you handle them makes all the difference.
2. Getting plenty of rest
With the culture of hyper-productivity and 70-hour workweeks, it’s easy to forget just how important sleep is for success. You could force yourself to function on little sleep, keep your body saturated with coffee, and power through. But in the long-run, successful people know that getting enough sleep will lead to more energy, and more energy means more chance of achieving your goals.
What constitutes “enough” depends on you, but be honest and tuned in with how your body feels and go to bed early when you need to. Albert Einstein famously slept for 10 hours every night and napped during the day. That’s likely too much for you, but studies show that people who sleep for 5 hours each night are almost a third less productive than those who sleep for 7 or 8 hours.
3. Looking after the body and mind
There is a romanticized idea of the tortured artist, or The Wolf of Wall Street style party-lover, who is able to live hard, work harder. That’s all well and good, yet research in this area shows that people are more likely to be successful if they treat their body and mind well. That includes plenty of sleep, but also means eating the right foods, exercising regularly, and practicing meditation and mindfulness to handle stress.
Something to keep in mind is that, for many people, success means taking responsibility. The business leader hires more employees, the writer lands a seven-figure book deal, the psychologist suddenly has millions of YouTube followers applying their wisdom to their lives.
It requires a certain disposition to handle the increased demands that come from success and knowing how to nourish mind and body is key to remaining balanced.
4. Learning to control impulses
The classic Stanford experiment, the Marshmallow Test, demonstrates the link between delayed gratification and success. Children in the study were given the option of eating a marshmallow immediately or waiting for an extra marshmallow. The study was followed up 40 years later, and the children who waited patiently were more successful in a range of areas, including grades, stress tolerance, and other life measures.
Anyone who lives a successful life understands this principle, from elite athletes sacrificing many of life’s pleasures to be in peak physical shape, to entrepreneurs who dedicate their lives to products that the rest of the world might not initially value. That means as a habit, successful people are able to control impulses and keep their future success in mind.
5. Setting worthwhile goals
Philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer once said: “Talent hits a target no one else can hit; genius hits a target no one else can see.” People who are exceptional in their field have a lot of mental clarity about what direction they wish to move in. They set goals that are connected to meaning, which allows them to pursue them despite all setbacks. As a habit, successful people always assess, set intentions, and know their target.
6. Knowing what steps to take to achieve those goals
Even then, successful people are able to move closer to the target, in a way that sets them apart from the masses. That’s because they’ll do all they can to work out what the path to their success is. They know that good habits are the foundation of the path. For example, people who become wealthy spend a lot of time learning new skills they can apply to their finances. Or people who become exceptional communicators learn what makes a public speaker compelling.
7. Knowing how to set up a supportive environment
The full Charles Duhigg’s quote from above provides a wider perspective on what makes good habits more likely. He writes: “We know that a habit cannot be eradicated—it must, instead, be replaced. And we know that habits are most malleable when the Golden Rule of habit change is applied: If we keep the same cue and the same reward, a new routine can be inserted. But that’s not enough. For a habit to stay changed, people must believe change is possible. And most often, that belief only emerges with the help of a group.”
Successful people know the group of people they spend their time with has a great influence on how likely they are to achieve their goals. If you’re surrounded by people who are supporting you and holding you accountable, you’re much more likely to succeed than spending your time with people who have different values and less motivation.
Studies have shown that social circles can influence opinions, behaviors, attitudes, and even levels of health and wellbeing. That’s in part due to the habits of others being contagious in their own way. It’s much easier to pick up a new habit of regular exercise if you have a close friend who is already established in a regular routine.
Change your habits, transform your life.
This isn’t an easy process, but the habits of successful people demonstrate that to live a successful life, you have to master your routine, and your routine is supported by your daily habits. To make the most of this wisdom, consider what success looks like for you, identify bad habits, establish new habits, and have a clear vision that will allow you to stick to the behaviors that lead you to your goals.
One step at a time is cliched advice, but it’s true. The path to fulfilling your goals and living the life of your dreams depends on the small choices you make. The good news is, by fostering good habits, many of those choices will become part of your nature; you won’t have to consciously choose them, and your subconscious mind will become the biggest champion of your success.
Once you’ve reached that point, and momentum builds, your habits will choose the future your hard work and commitment deserves.