Since birth, we have been constantly learning. Though it is not something we "feel", we assimilate knowledge and build habits from new experiences daily. In the beginning, learning was effortless. As we grew into adulthood, the roots of our knowledge spread deeper becoming ingrained in us and making it more difficult to pick up new concepts.
Take foreign language as an example. Children pick up foreign tongues naturally and effortlessly. Adults may master the basics quickly, but as a colleague of mine once said about golf, "The secret to getting better is to start earlier."
This has nothing to do with our intelligence, we are simply creatures of habit... and not just those hard-to-break habits like nail biting. We unknowingly create habits for nearly everything. It's a matter of efficiency. Why is that golf swing so hard to learn? Because we've spent a lifetime teaching our bodies to move a certain way. Swinging a long club at a tiny ball for the first time is foreign, inefficient, hence feels awkward and difficult to absorb. We haven't created the muscle memory. There is no programmed automatic response. We haven't yet formed the habit required to perform the action efficiently.
Of course, we all wish to break ourselves of those unappealing habits. We design clever tricks to catch ourselves in the act--strings around fingers, random chimes every few minutes, etc. But building a better self is more than eliminating bad habits; it's about creating new, positive, fulfilling ones. Yes, those bad habits have to go. But the real improvement in our lives will come when positive habits are created. Actions and thoughts performed daily bringing us closer to our goals. Gretchen Rubin of the Happiness Project explained it best when she said, "What you do every day matters more than what you do every once in a while."
Here's the deal: If we want to learn a new language, we need to practice daily. If we want a better golf swing, practice daily. Have better posture? Solve mental math problems quicker? Lift bigger weights?
Practicing our desired actions daily embeds them in our character. The habit forms and we reap the benefits of no longer thinking about improving that aspect of our lives. The action becomes automatic.
Of course, practicing something new is easy at first. The excitement of any new goal commands our attention. Once the excitement has worn off however, remembering to practice can be difficult. New interests compete for our time, and remembering to practice is replaced with the pursuit of new goals. If we are to build new daily habits that help us achieve our end-goals, we'll need help remembering, we'll need inspiration, and we'll need to track our progress.
Remembering may be one of the most challenging aspects of creating new habits. Consistency is key, for one misstep in the early days of forming a new habit can be detrimental. If we are to improve daily, remembering to work on our new habits is of paramount importance. Fortunately, many hundreds of tools exist today for doing so. I personally use the Coach.me smartphone app which reminds me to check in on my goals, though any app with recurring reminders should do the trick. For the less digitally inclined, keeping a daily task list complete with goals will be important.
In addition to remembering, we must find inspiration to keep our goals alive when we stumble. Inspiration comes in many forms, but none are more powerful than people with similar goals as ourselves. Reach out to others who share similar goals. Get involved to share progress, swap war stories, and learn from each other. If you're not a fan or don't have the time to visit groups in person, search for online resources. For me, Coach.me is instrumental again. The the app assembles people with the same goals, allowing them to share progress, ask questions, and prop each other up for hard work toward daily achievements.
Finally, if we are to improve daily, we must track our progress. Tracking progress can be, in and of itself, motivation towards desired behavior and can help improve good habits. When we track progress, we have information to evaluate whether we are changing for the better. We can see new habits are forming and we can tell when stale habits need encouragement. For example, one study showed that the simple act of keeping a food diary six days a week resulted in up to twice as much weight loss in patients vs. those who tracked their food intake one day a week. This type of self-tracking keeps us accountable to ourselves. It also helps build habits that become automatic. Tracking progress is the first routine we should create, and the one daily reminder that should never fail.
We are creatures of habit. If we desire to improve ourselves, we must change what we do daily for the better. These habits, good or bad, define us. For this reason alone it matters more what we do daily than what we do every once in a while. Remove our bad habits, build new good ones, and refine existing ones. Doing so won't be easy. It will require persistence, self-tracking, inspiration, and sometimes community. But with a little due diligence, you can find helpful tools and begin a series of small steps each day in exchange for big improvements in the long run.