What if I told you some good habits can be formed in the blink of an eye?
Habits are the building blocks of your life. Building a good habit can seem like literally fighting against the force of gravity—like climbing Pike’s Peak in a Mitsubishi Mirage (trust me from personal experience, it’s not ideal). On the flipside, building a bad habit is like letting go and rolling back down the mountain. It’s that easy.
As James Clear puts it, “the costs of your good habits are in the present. The costs of your bad habits are in the future.” It all comes down to tangibility. We can see the benefits of our bad habits in the present, just as we can see the costs of our good habits, which is why we almost always default to the bad habits. The benefits of those double-stuf Oreo cookies come through their amazing flavor, while the costs will become visible in your waistline weeks down the road.
When you think of adding good habits or replacing bad habits, you think of process. You think of time. You think of effort. You think of consistency. You think of commitment. You think of every single type of friction that could possibly keep you from achieving that habit you envision. Positive habit formation typically requires you to account for all of these aspects, which is why most habit changes fail.
Like Touching a Stove Top
But what if I told you some good, lasting habits can be formed in the blink of an eye? What if I told you that not every positive change takes months and years to stick? What if I told you that you have full control over triggering positive change in your life almost instantly? You’d probably call me crazy and stop reading. But I urge you to read on.
Every now and then, a good habit forms from one single, solitary, seemingly insignificant moment. It comes in the form of a shock to your system—a paradigm shift of life-changing proportions originating from one blip on the otherwise smooth and uninterrupted trajectory of your life. It is the flip of a switch. It is an incorporeal shift that takes Tom Brady from third-string irrelevancy to Super Bowl MVP, Julius Caesar from Roman general to Roman emperor, an obese person from McDonald’s drive-thru window to marathon finish line, or what keeps you from ever putting your finger on the stove top again.
It can be a moment of boldness. It can be a moment of decisiveness. It can be a moment of embarrassment. It can be a moment of fear. For me, it was showing up to a meeting without a pencil.
Under the Façade
By my sophomore year at Villanova University, I was just scraping by. My GPA was I was a hair above 2.0. I was skipping textbook reading assignments, showing up late to classes, skipping classes I deemed to be unnecessary, doing the bare minimum. I prioritized hanging out with friends over studying. I prioritized counting down the days until the end of the semester instead of making the most of my time during the semester. I was stuck in a self-constructed rut that I had never experienced before. Public high school had not prepared me for the rigors of private university, and I was in no mindset to take responsibility for fixing that. Put simply, I was a mess.
Throughout the early days of my college career, I became skilled at underachieving under a mask of overachievement. I mastered the façade of always being on top of things, and I was always able to get away with it. All I was focused on was that piece of paper on graduation day that would “guarantee” a “high-paying” job. This is the problem with a goal-oriented mindset—and that’s a discussion for another day.
This all set the stage for one sunny spring morning that would alter my approach to life. I had a scheduled meeting with my advisor to talk about my plans for junior year. I expected that it would be painless and effortless: talk about which classes I planned to take and I would be good to go.
My advisor, whom I had only met once in the previous semester, was a nice, older Japanese man, small in stature. He was very regimented, and you could tell from the spartan layout of his office that he was disciplined and efficient—characteristics I was sorely missing.
Prior to the meeting, the advisor asked all his advisees to email him a list of courses we would like to take in the next semester. So I did that, and showed up to my meeting ready to shape the next chapter of my underachieving college career.
What I thought would be a short and easy meeting became anything but. My advisor asked me to take out a piece of paper. I replied that I hadn’t brought my bag with me. He sat there, blank-faced, and handed me a blank sheet of paper.
He then asked me to take out a pencil to write down which courses I’d like to take next semester. I replied again that I hadn’t brought anything with me. It was in this moment that his blank stare became visible frustration.
It was in this moment that my façade disintegrated.
What was to be the short and easy meeting I planned for became a 10-minute tirade on why I must always show up to a meeting with a pencil.
At the time, being 20 years old, I felt I didn’t need to take that treatment from him. I asked him why I needed to write anything down if I had already emailed him the information he asked for. I asked him what the big deal was. I was so incensed with the fact that he was treating me with such disdain and disgust that I got up and left. In that moment, not only did I not understand him, but I didn’t understand the impact that moment would have on the rest of my life to this day.
On the outside, I was angry and indifferent about the situation. On the inside, I was embarrassed and disappointed in myself. How had I allowed myself to fall this far?
If I could track that advisor down today, I would sincerely thank him. What he did on that day may have amounted to just reprimanding an irresponsible student. For me, it was the paradigm shift I was desperately and unconsciously waiting for. In the heat of the moment, it may have just been misunderstanding—mine of his strict and harsh tone, and his of my blatant apathy. But that was the spark that would send my life onto a whole new trajectory.
From that moment on, I have made it a point to hold myself to a higher standard.
From that moment on, I have taken pride in always being prepared in any situation.
From that moment on, I have never failed to show up to a meeting without a pencil.
This shift in discipline didn’t require any of the typically habit-building strategies, or practice, or time and effort. It just happened. Like putting a finger on the burning hot stove, that one single, solitary moment on a seemingly insignificant spring day in 2011 became what I call my pencil paradigm shift.
I soon realized that I didn’t have to wait for someone to yell at me for showing up unprepared in order to start taking pride in preparation. I didn’t have to wait for some painful event in order for me to change my behavior for the better. I realized that there are ways that I can trick my mind into new habits as easily as one ice cream sundae can throw off a perfect diet.
Put simply, you can skip the dread and the grind of reversing the momentum of bad habits with a simple, well-orchestrated paradigm shift. The fuel that propels the change: accountability.
3 Effective Ways to Plan Your Paradigm Shifts
There are innumerable ways to trick your mind into new and better habits, and ways of thinking. Here, I give you a few effective strategies for triggering positive change in your life, on three different levels:
- Personal: Put your own skin in the game. As I mentioned in How a Plane Ticket Transformed My Life, creating your own forcing functions will force you out of your comfort zone. I bought the plane ticket to Madrid with no research, no idea what was in store, no real understanding of what I was getting myself into. But it forced me into a lot of uncomfortable situations one might encounter while travelling alone for the first time in a foreign country. That experience, which I will describe in more depth in a future post, forced me to grow as a person faster than any typical habit-formation strategy would.
- Local: Form a challenge network. Form an accountability group. As Adam Grant might describe it, a challenge network should be the people who will tell you that you’re not quite where you need to be. These are the people that will push you because they care about helping you get better. As everyone in the group holds each other accountable, everyone grows together.
- Global: Declare your intentions to the world. Most people won’t care about your intentions. Most people won’t even take you seriously. But when you declare to the world on social media your intention to quit smoking or lose 20 lbs, you obligate yourself to follow up on that. Human nature forces us to keep consistent with what we say in public (most of the time), so use it to your advantage. The pain of putting in the work in the present is much less than the pain of embarrassment and failure in the future when someone asks you why you are still smoking.
Stop Waiting for Change to Come
You don’t always have to wait for an academic advisor to reprimand you for not having a pencil. You don’t always have to wait for a health scare to change your eating habits. You don’t always have to wait to get thrown in a jail cell to finally decide you want to live responsibly.
The tools are in your hands. They always have been and always will be. When you realize that you are the catalyst for your own personal paradigm shifts, your life will take on a whole new energy, you will have increased confidence and self-belief, and you will always expect more of yourself because you know you are capable of it.
Keep in mind, these paradigm shifts don’t relieve you of the burden of process, time, effort, consistency, and commitment. What they do is spark you into the new habit. They facilitate a more direct transition from bad habit to good. They ensure that every time you show up to a meeting, you have a pencil or a pen. They ensure that you show up prepared in every aspect of your life without even having to think about it.
In essence, a pencil paradigm shift—a simple, seemingly inconsequential moment—if you can recognize it, will put new good habits on autopilot.
Think about pencil paradigm shifts in your life. Everyone has had one. And if you haven’t, it will come when you least expect it. Until then, you now have the tools to make personal growth happen on your own terms.
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