I try to read a new non-fiction book every couple of weeks. To be honest, it can be a bit of a chore sometimes since a lot of non-fiction books lack decent content and, quite frankly, are mostly fluff. Some books take a small topic that could be covered in less than 20 pages and find ways to expand it to 300+ pages, wearing the reader out way before they're halfway through. Other books talk about a topic on a superficial level that initially makes you feel good but doesn't offer ways to apply it to your day-to-day life, making the content you read disappear from your head almost as soon as you study something else. My purpose is to get bits and pieces of new knowledge and try to apply them to my own life, so it can feel like lost time if a book doesn't offer that.
It might sound like reading books is typically a waste of time, but that's not what I want to get through here. There's always something new to learn or feel great about by reading any non-fiction book. The issue is that when it comes time to put any new knowledge taken from the book into use, you're often left more confused and possibly more frustrated than when you began because there was no indication about how to do it. You're left feeling like you didn't accomplish anything.
Still, there are plenty of fantastic books that are the opposite. Sometimes you can read a book and it just "clicks" in your head offering practical ways to apply them to your own life, seeing results immediately. Not only you see results quickly, but the results also change the way you see certain aspects of your life and vastly improves them permanently. There are very few things that can make you feel more empowered and capable than when you can apply something you learned and see the improvement in your own life.
Here are three books that have done precisely that for me. These books have changed the way I look at why I do the things that I typically do, and how I should be doing them to successfully guide me to what I want to accomplish on a daily basis. I've applied countless lessons taken from what I read in them, and they work exceptionally well. I'm confident that you'll think a lot differently about areas of your life after reading these books, and if you take the time to apply some of the lessons, you'll be in a better spot to reach your goals.
Habits yield significant power in our lives. They make it possible for us to do a large number of tasks on a daily basis with little to no effort. You don't even think consciously about them - you just do them. By not thinking about these actions, our brains are allowed to spend more time on other high-level activity, like the project you're working on or focusing on getting your health in order.
You can have habits that are good for you and can enhance your quality of life. But you can also have habits that are detrimental to your well-being. The thing is, whether your habit is considered good or bad, it's challenging to change it. That's what this book, The Power of Habit, focuses on. The author, Charles Duhigg, tells us how we can trick our brains into changing any habit we have, especially the bad habits we all have that at one point or another have desperately tried to change.
The key from this book is that we can't take a bad habit and just eliminate it entirely. As Duhigg himself puts it:
"The Golden Rule of Habit Change: You can't extinguish a bad habit, you can only change it."
So how do we go about changing it? Duhigg's research shows that there's something called the habit loop, where there's a cue that happens, you do an automatic routine and get a reward at the end. For example, if you're someone who eats unhealthy food every day, your habit loop is:
- Cue: Get hungry.
- Routine: Go to a fast-food restaurant and buy a double bacon cheeseburger, large fries, and a large soda.
- Reward: Feel full and satisfied.
If you're looking to get healthier by cutting down on bad food, you can't eliminate the whole loop. It won't work because you'll eventually get hungry, and you want to feel full and satisfied. Since you're so used to going to the local fast-food place, you'll gravitate towards that and fall back into the same routine of getting unhealthy food. Additionally, if you change both the routine and the reward - for example, eating a tiny meal and ending up hungry - your brain won't like it, and you'll also revert to the old loop. Instead, Duhigg suggests the following:
"To change a habit, you must keep the old cue, and deliver the old reward, but insert a new routine."
With this insight, we can transform the example above to the following habit loop:
- Cue: Get hungry.
- Routine: Prepare a full meal with grilled chicken, vegetables and tea at home.
- Reward: Feel full and satisfied.
Although there's a bit more work involved in the routine, the cue and the reward are eventually the same, making the change less stressful and more comfortable to have it stick.
I've personally applied this technique in many aspects of my life, from eating healthier like the example above or getting my work done, and it's worked wonders. The book contains lots of additional information about habits that also help in reshaping how you do things on a daily basis, like setting keystone habits that lead to building upon many good habits.
One common pitfall that many people encounter when trying to set healthy habits for themselves is that they make the habit too big. Usually, we feel that if we don't do whatever we deem is enough we shouldn't even try. Can't go to the gym three times a week? Don't exercise. Can't spend 30 minutes learning a new language? Don't learn. Can't write 1000 words a day for a book idea you have in your head? Don't write.
This is where this book, Mini Habits, comes into play. The author, Stephen Guise, advocates a much simpler approach - starting habits in such a small way that you can't fail (or what he calls "stupid small"). The key is to set a goal so low that it's pretty much impossible to fail on a consistent basis, and everything after that is a bonus. Guise puts it this way:
"One small step + desired behavior = high probability of further steps."
An example he uses that worked for his personal life was that when we wanted to get in shape, he set a goal of doing just one push-up a day, every single day. Of course, on most days he did much more than one single push-up. But when he was starting off his fitness habit, he went to bed and was able to go to sleep before remembering to do his goal of one push-up, so he just rolled over and did the single push-up in bed. He ended his day satisfied that he accomplished his goal. This small intention turned into a habit where he got himself in great shape. The way he puts it sums up the "mini habit" principle:
"Be the person with embarrassing goals and impressive results instead of one of the many people with impressive goals and embarrassing results."
That's the trick here. When we set big goals and don't hit them, we feel embarrassed, upset, sad, etc. By establishing a small target, we feel good when we reach it, and then feel even better if we do a lot more. And more often than not, once we start doing something the law of momentum kicks in and we continue doing it for much longer than we anticipated. You can then increase your habit gradually, which will end up with you getting incredible results.
I've applied this principle to incredible results. Here are a few of my mini habits:
- Writing: Write 50 words a day for a new article.
- Exercising: Spend 5 minutes stretching.
- Japanese studying: Study kanji and listening comprehension for a total of five minutes.
These are the absolute minimums I strive to do every day, but I usually do much more than that. For example, today I've written over 1,000 words already, went to the gym for 90 minutes and have studied Japanese for 30 minutes. Because I've set the bar so low, all of my goals have progressed much further than I expected and I haven't fallen into the trap of feeling frustrated and giving up. I highly recommend applying at least one mini habit into your daily routine so you can experience the power they have.
You might not realize this, but there's a high chance that you spent most of your day today thinking about something that has happened before, or something that will or might happen soon. Very rarely do we have our minds set on what we're doing right now at this very instant. The danger of this mindset is that it lingers on in the back of our minds because we're always thinking about the past ("Why didn't I do that?") or the future ("When will I ever be able to do that?"). Inevitably, it will lead to feelings of not being in control. I'm a believer that these issues are a significant cause of discontentment with many people today. It was a tremendous problem for me.
The solution to this problem is to train your mind to focus on what you're doing at this moment, reminding ourselves that we're where we're supposed to be. The Practicing Mind explains that the mind is at its most calm and peaceful when it's focusing on the present. You can only control what you're doing now. There's no point in keeping your mind solely in the past or the future because these are moments you can't control. As the author Thomas M. Sterner wrote:
"The feeling "I'll be happy when X happens" will never bring you anything but discontentment."
When I first read this, it hit me hard because I realized that I was never present, even when I thought I was. I often thought things like "I'll be so happy when I'm able to learn this programming language" or "My life will be so much better when I complete this project". Because I thought about the result so much, I would continuously get frustrated at myself because I wasn't where I wanted to be yet, leading me to give up whatever I was doing because I still had a long way to go to reach what I thought was happiness and joy.
Instead of thinking solely about the result, this book taught me to be aware of where I am right now and focus on the process. This allowed me to enjoy what I was doing instead of worrying about when I would finish. I would only think about the goal on occasion, to make sure I was still on track and didn't get sidetracked along the way. This led to lots of progress in both my happiness as well as being able to reach goals more consistently. As Sterner mentioned in the book:
"Progress is a natural result of staying focused on the process of doing anything."
This book is a short read and structured in such a way that you can pick this book up at any time, go to any section and refresh your mind almost instantly. The keys from this book are: slow down deliberately, enjoy what you're doing now and never be unsatisfied with your current progress. It all sounds simple in practice, but it unquestionably works. The amount of calmness, happiness and personal development that happen when you slow down and focus on the present will guide you farther than you've ever imagined.
We all have a few things we've like to change, and these books have great ways of helping you do that. I highly encourage everyone to pick up at least one of these three books, read it and find lessons that you can use right now. Make sure you take the time to apply some of the ideas presented as you see fit in your current life. You will see results, and they will guide you to the success you desire and deserve.