We Are What We Repeatedly Do: Four Plans for Healthy Habits

Health and happiness have more to do with our habits than our circumstances.

Posted Jun 24, 2019

To predict your future, you need not consult a fortune teller or learn to read tea leaves; you need only make an honest assessment of your current habits. For better or for worse, our habits shape our present circumstances and foretell our future success. To quote Ben Franklin, “Your net worth to the world is usually determined by what remains after your bad habits are subtracted from your good ones.”

Even though poor habits are the source of many personal problems and the ambition behind many failed New Year’s Resolutions, there is a reason for optimism. Although we don’t get to choose our parents or many of the things that happen to us, our habits are eternally moldable. Habits are both our most important responsibility and our best opportunity for a better life. Even during times of difficulty, developing better habits can guide us to greater success as effectively as the North Star can guide a lost traveler. Unfortunately, most people try to change their habits through willpower and self-discipline alone when what they need is to combine their willpower with an effective habit-building plan. Recognizing that no single habit plan works for everyone, this post summarizes four effective plans for building habits that can improve our health and happiness levels.

1. The “Do This, Not That!” Plan

Illustrated in books such as Dr. Paterson’s How to Be Miserable and in some amusing YouTube videos (e.g., “7 ways to maximize misery”), the “Do This, Not That!” plan is based on the logic that the best way to overcome bad habits is to replace them with better habits. Just as nature abhors a vacuum, unless bad habits are replaced with better alternatives, it is usually just a matter of time before the old habit returns. The “Do This, Not That” plan works by identifying specific types of activities for us to engage in each day to establish them as health and happiness-promoting habits, while simultaneously decreasing or eliminating common health and happiness-eroding habits. The image below provides an example.

Thomas Rutledge
The "Do this, not that!" habit plan
Source: Thomas Rutledge

2. Planting Your Mental Garden

The second habit-building plan reflects the writing of James Allen, author of As a Man Thinketh. Allen wrote: “A man's mind may be likened to a garden, which may be intelligently cultivated or allowed to run wild.” Any farmer knows that a successful harvest in the fall begins with the act of planting the desired crop in the spring. The human mind, of course, is more fertile than any soil, yet the mind unerringly follows the same law of cause and effect. The “mental seeds” that we plant through our regular thinking, reading, viewing, and socializing habits will inevitably spring forth into real-world consequences. Whether these consequences manifest in the form of fruit or poison is for us to decide based on the quality of the ideas and influences we sow inside ourselves. This plan breaks down the mental gardening process into four areas that may be customized to produce a better personal “harvest.” Changing any one of the areas alone may improve our lives; changing all four areas over time may transform it.

Thomas Rutledge
Source: Thomas Rutledge

3. The Daily Excellence Plan

The “Daily Excellence Plan” combines a pragmatic habit-building structure with the philosophy and spirituality of holistic health practices. This plan originates from Aristotle’s famous quote: “We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, therefore, is not an act, but a habit.” By dividing personal excellence into physical, mental, and spiritual dimensions, this habit-building plan is easy to customize. A person who's determined to have more health, happiness, or success can identify daily practices in any one dimension, or even all three dimensions, to promote the desired result. The image below provides general examples of excellence-promoting activities in each dimension and an example of a fully developed Daily Excellence Plan that could be implemented directly or modified for a more individualized plan.

Thomas Rutledge
Source: Thomas Rutledge

4. The Morning Ritual

The fourth habit-building plan is already practiced in different forms by some of the world’s most successful people. Many famous athletes, presidents, and celebrities, for example, attribute their success to the consistent practice of morning routines promoting mental clarity, positive emotional states, and optimal physical performance. “The Morning Ritual” is based on both science and subjective experience showing that our mental and physical states in the morning set the tone for the entire day. Rushing out the door in the morning with a cup of coffee and donut in hand is already an all-too-common morning ritual, but not one that promotes a successful day. For the many who already feel pressed with time in the morning hours, the Morning Ritual need not take long. Although one may certainly engage in an hour of relaxation, yoga, meditation, exercise, or empowering reading if your schedule allows, quality is more important than quantity. Even a 10-15-minute Morning Ritual comprised of activities that stimulate the mind and body and create good emotional states can make an enormous difference. The example image below starts the Morning Ritual even before getting out of bed, using intentional questions to get the mind constructively focused, followed by one or more ritual actions that can physically prepare us for the day ahead.

Thomas Rutledge
Source: Thomas Rutledge