I have been teaching MBAs for 12 years and I am often asked over a coffee a question on the general theme of “what should I do with my life?” or “how can I be a success?” to which I feel hugely under-qualified to provide answers.
I have spent time reflecting on my own life (not a great source of wisdom) and speaking with lots of friends, colleagues and wise-seeming individuals (a great source of wisdom). I have compiled a list of 17 daily habits that are common to the people who reach the end of their life, look back and say “I would be happy to do much the same again”.
I was hesitant to share this material as I feel unqualified to talk about it (only half way through the average human lifespan, not yet a billionaire). I showed it to my father a couple of days ago, only to discover the next day that he had passed it on to the boards of 3 global companies, some successful authors, some highly successful people… and they came back saying that this was inspiring and “challenging stuff”. I thank my father for doing what I was scared to do – share this stuff.
17 Daily Habits for a Fulfilling Life
The full document (8 pages) is available if you want here on Google Documents.
- Goal setting (Dreams to Goals to Actions)
- Time Management
- Fit mind and body
- Personal vision (What on Earth am I here for?)
- Integrity – build trust
- Personal finances in order
- Good social life
- Strong relationships with partner, family and kids
- Resilience (Head in the sky, feet on the ground)
- Self motivation
- Self acceptance
- Attracts and uses mentors and advisors
- Is open and seeks coaching
- Giving with intention
- Gets others to do stuff
- Sets aside time for reflection
I would appreciate your reactions in the comments (here) and this really is a work in progress to which I would love to see how we use the web 2.0 tools (facebook, twitter, linkedin) to collaborate and develop this material.3 Most Recent Blog Posts
- Redefining Failure
- Set Goals of Character and Ability, not of Achievement and Status
- Books read in 2021
I have another question – how do you get people to change their habits? Some of the early readers of this material said “really enjoyed reading this piece, but it is a bit like january resolutions-the new diet is a great idea but it is very hard to stop eating the things we like”. If it is not a book, if it is not a course, if it is not new year’s resolutions… what does it really take to allow someone to reach an aha moment and implement change in their life (I need this answer more than most for my own life, I might have this list, but every day I am challenged to find the discipline to live it).
Update: TEDx Talk on this Subject…
In April 2013 I was fortunate to be invited to speak at the TEDx University of Navarra “Shaking the Ordinary” event. The speech is now up on YouTube:
Goal setting, Dreams – Goals – Actions
We know what we need to do to be successful, but why do so few people manage to sustain the habits of regularly dedicating time to the activities that will bring them success? Why do we sabotage ourselves?
A nice thought about something you might like to have is a dream. A dream written down and clearly visualised is a goal. A tangible, measurable step written down and committed to is an action. You will not achieve a dream if you don’t systematically work through the actions that lead to the goals that lead to the dream. Dream – have a book published. Goal – complete first draft of book by 31/1/2010. Action – write 1000 words on goal setting.
A writer is somebody who finds writing harder than anybody else. My brother Aidan – set a goal 60 weeks ago – publish a blog article every Monday before 9:00am – and has consistently met it except for 2 weeks – the week his son was born and the week his son was in hospital with a worrying stomach condition. How? He made a verbal commitment to many of his friends. He said to his wife that he would give her €100 every time he failed to publish by 9:00am. He has paid 3 times (once he published the blog 20 minutes late).
We need accountability partners (sadly we are less likely to cheat on our goals if committed to a friend than just to ourself). The top performers all have coaches; it is too difficult to sustain high performance without help.
Malcolm Gladwell in the book Outliers made popular the idea that becoming excellent requires 10,000 hours of practice. Your genes, your natural talent, luck becomes irrelevant when you achieve 10,000 hours. In what will you spend the next 5 years accumulating your 10,000 hours of practice?
Most people never accrue 10,000 hours in anything. Will you make the commitment to excellence, the commitment to mastery?
Calendar Management (Pomodoro Technique, Rhythm); Self Discipline
“We must all suffer from one of two pains: the pain of discipline or the pain of regret” Jim Rohn
Routine sets you free. Routines can break the tendancy to procrastination (“quieting the lizard brain” Seth Godin).
Pomodoro technique – get a timer that clearly counts down 25 minute intervals. Take your to-do list. Prioritise number 1 important item. Estimate number of 25 minute intervals. Set the timer and work on the first timer. Any interruption, reset the timer to 25. At the end of a pomodoro take a proper 7 minute break. After 4 take a 25 minute break. How many pomodoros can you achieve in a day?
Self discipline has been shown to be an “expendable” resource. In order to have the greatest ability to maintain self discipline, we need to get enough sleep, face our anxieties, take time out to relax as well.
Fit mind and body (Energy)
Survey of centurions (people who live to 100) – two things in common:
- they exercise every day and
- they have a project which they must survive in order to complete.
“Sharpen the saw”: You only have one body – take time for repairs. Take time to strengthen it. Take time to rest it. Keep fit, play sport, enjoy walking, don’t wait for the heart attack to let you know that you need to eat healthy, keep fit.
“What on Earth am I here for?” Wrong Question – meaning is not to be found inside ourselves – “What do my parents, friends, family, society need from me? How can I best help others?
Jesus Christ once said, “Self-help is no help at all. Self-sacrifice is the way, my way, to finding yourself, your true self.”
What drives you? Guilt? Resentment? Fear? Materialism? Approval? Social comparison?
The Arbinger Institute distinguish between two forms of emotional living – “In the box” vs “Out of the box”. “In the box” is reactive – your emotions are reactions to world and people around you. If someone is late to your meeting, you are angry. Out of the Box is that you are proactive about emotion – you choose the emotion that best serves the current moment. You don’t react to people, but seek to understand what is happening in their life, what they are seeking, what they are lacking.
Henry David Thoreau observed that people live lives of “quiet desperation,” but today a better description is aimless distraction. Many people are like gyroscopes, spinning around at a frantic pace but never going anywhere.
We are products of our past, but do not have to be prisoners of it.
George Bernard Shaw wrote, “This is the true joy of life: the being used up for a purpose recognized by yourself as a mighty one; being a force of nature instead of a feverish, selfish little clot of ailments and grievances, complaining that the world will not devote itself to making you happy.”
Do you have a clear understanding of your values? Have you spent some time reflecting on what is important to you? Who are your role models that have lived these values in a strong way? (What do you really want?)
Why do many cancer survivors look back on the cancer as a gift? – they live the rest of their lives with a true understanding of how short a time we have and what is really important in the time we have. The unimportant drops away and leaves a powerful clarity and focus.
Communication in concise terms of your personal, company, project, goal vision. You are always selling. People sign up for vision, fun and principle.
“We die”. What will you do the last hour? Who will be there? Who will you want to speak to? What would you say?
In the book “Superfreakonomics” there is a chapter that shows a high correlation with the arrival of television and an increase in crime. The authors examine various hypothesis, but essentially find no link except a speculation that the arrival of TV also was the arrival of powerful advertisement campaigns that transmit the idea that “buy this product” = “get this life”. The purchase of a €2 coca cola is not the purchase of sugar, water and some cola flavour in a red can… No, it is access to a life full of exciting friends, fun parties and meaningful interaction. The purchase of a car is not the purchase of a vehicle to get from A to B, it is access to a lifestyle. You are not happy now, but the mere purchase of the right set of goods will transform your life into one of fulfilment. This leads to frustrated people. We believe the ads, but they are selling falsehood. No thing, no object, no achievement will fundamentally change how you feel about yourself – only you can decide to change how you feel about life.
Integrity – build trust, reliability (“Its a small world”)
Are values worthwhile because they provide a ROI or are they valuable only in that they allow you to sleep well every night? Warren Buffett – why is Integrity his number 1 criteria for selecting people in whom to invest?
Aristotle believed that if an individual did not internalise an ethical value system before the age of 12 they would never really “feel” the need to live their values. Aristotle separates the ingredients of a Person of Integrity into two levels, the first level are two virtues that are the foundation of all the rest. The foundational virtues are:
- Courage and
The edifice of credible character is then built of the following lived virtues:
- Greatness of Soul
- Balanced Ambition
- Gentleness (concerning Anger)
- The Absence of Shame – Aristotle has a hard time with this idea, expressing that shame is a force that is necessary in youth to hold them back from overstepping bounds, but as wisdom develops with age an individual must remove the shackles of shame.
Finances in Order
Delayed gratification is necessary. Nobody soaked in debt will ever be able to generate the focus to deliver impact in the important areas of their life.
The test that has most correlation with success in life is a simple test devised by psychologists. They bring a child into a room and sit them down. The child is presented with a sweet. The adult then says that they need to leave the room. The child is most welcome to eat the sweet, but if it is still there when the adult returns, the child will receive 2 sweets. 50% of children cannot resist temptation and eat the one sweet, losing the opportunity to double their outcomes. The children that don’t eat the sweet do not sit there staring at it – they have learnt to avoid looking at the temptation, they have learnt strategies to manage themselves.
Accumulate education => Accumulate capital => Generate income => Grow expenses inside the limit of passive income. Freedom = passive income > expenses. Slave = 90% income as salary. Keep expenses low, generate assets.
Balanced, enriching social life
Choose your friends. You will become who you spend most time with.
What is the most satisfying thing you can do for:
Happiness: It is all about shared experiences + intentional giving.
Unhappiness: it is all about comparing yourself to others, what you have, what you don’t have. What would you rescue from your house if you could only save one thing? (95% choose photos). Not plasma TV, not furniture.
Strong close relationships – Marriage, Family, Kids
Quality time vs time in the same room. Intimacy. Requires work to deepen relationships and maintain powerful connections. It does not happen automatically – we are not genetically prepared to establish deep intimate relationships.
Resilience (Head in the sky, Feet on the ground)
Healthy balance between Principles and Pragmatism. Get good at ignoring the little things. Don’t wrestle with pigs. You will get dirty, you will lose and the pig enjoys it.
Self Motivation, Self Esteem, Self Belief
You see what you are looking for. Ask the right questions. Change “why does this happen to me?” to “What am I grateful for today?”
Get good at motivating yourself. We are not computers – we are neurons floating in a sea of hormones and we need to be careful what hormones we let flood our brain – it will change what we see and believe.
“The only source of good knowledge is bad experience” Tom Peters
Climbing Everest, you will not always be going uphill. Sometimes there are periods of downhill, but it is a necessary part of the journey. Farmers don’t blame the winter – they accept that it will always come around and prepare to plant seeds in Spring.
Survive => Thrive. We are first generation that survival is guaranteed. We are first generation where thrive is the aim – and we don’t have any history or knowledge or family role models that can guide us in a world where you really can avoid most hardships.
The person who says “poor me” has clearly got low self esteem. The person who says “I am the greatest” is also likely to have low self esteem.
You are the best you in the world. You will be a terrible somebody else.
“The reward for conformity is that everybody likes you except yourself” Rita Mae Brown
It is only in the tough times that you reach into yourself and truly see what is important to you. In the easy times you lose yourself as you compare to everybody else – and lose clarity of what you will know is important when death is imminent. The sharpest steel is forged in the hottest furnaces.
Life is too short to not laugh regularly.
Be accessible and approachable.
Mentors and Advisors (Life Strategy)
Have a list. Find your way to ask them. Nick Luckock – “Apax doesn’t invest in first time entrepreneurs – they don’t yet know how much help they will need from others and how they can ask for it”.
The ideal mentor is someone who you respect, can connect with on a personal level, and who is willing to impart their knowledge. But don’t expect them to solve all your problems.
“A mentor’s role is to help you to make sense of your own experiences” Professor D Megginson
Talking to someone who’s been through a similar experience or has achieved something that you would like to achieve will be constructive.
Coach (Accountability and Balance)
Cormac and his personal trainer: “I only work with the best”.
“I have no time for people not prepared to do the hard work.”
Permission to hold me accountable for my own actions.
Tiger Woods, Roger Federer, Steve Jobs, Michael Dell all have two things in common – they have been leaders of their respective fields, and they each have a coach. The best in the world have coaches. Is it coincidence? We are not strong enough mentally to keep up the hard work and discipline over the long haul to reach excellence. We need people around us who hold us accountable and push us to stretch. Tony Nadal, the coach of Rafa Nadal, says that his role is to ensure “Effort and Commitment” – not tennis skills, not better strokes, not how to get fit.
Auschvitz – 1 in 30 survived the camp. Victor Frankl was one. Why did some survive and others not? It was not random. The prisoners received bread rations only sufficient to keep them barely alive, yet some prisoners would take half of their bread and give it to someone that they saw needed it more than them. Those that ate all of their bread survived a time. Those that shared their meagre ration of bread were able to truly live. You can take everything away from a man except his ability to choose his response to any given situation.
Victor Frankl developed the Logotherapy process to help people find the ultimate meaning for their life, to find “a why that can overcome any how”. There are three types of ultimate meaning:
- Serving others
- A Unique Contribution
- Finding Meaning in the Suffering Itself
Giving with intention, giving what is special to you.
“We make a living by what we get, we make a life by what we give” Winston Churchill
Getting others to do stuff for you
Leadership is “Vision with bullying”.
A vision without execution is idealism. Execution without vision is bullying.
Volunteer for charities, clubs. It is here that you will learn to lead. Create change = upset someone, connect people, lead people.
Reflection, Time to Think (Separation of Now and Future) “What have we learnt?”
Incremental improvement always wins.
Meditation – why? Does it really provide the impact that many of its proponents suggest? Commit to 10 days of self development activity every year.
“We’ll pluck significance from the least consequential happenstance if it suits us and happily ignore the most flagrantly obvious symmetry between separate aspects of our lives if it threatens some cherished prejudice or cosily comforting belief; we are blindest to precisely whatever might be most illuminating”. Iain Banks, Transition, Patient 8262.
- Impact = Self Understanding + Personal Habits + Social Systems
- Life = Work + Social + Relationship + Logos (Meaning/Spiritual)
- Success = Impact + Luck
A fulfilling life?
Why worry? It should all come together in the end shouldn’t it? Life should naturally turn out well. I don’t like exactly where I am right now, but in a few years it will be better. Doesn’t it just happen like that?
I read Captain Corelli’s Mandolin by Louis de Bernieres when I was 23 years old. It changed an idea I had about life. It scared me greatly.
The book tells the story of an lieutenant that is stationed on a Greek Island as part of the Italian occupation during the second world war. He gets to know the locals and falls in love with the daughter of a villager. They enjoy happy times together. The Allied forces take back control of Greece, and the Italian army beats a hasty retreat. Our lieutenant has to depart but he and the Greek girl promise that he will return after the war. Three years later, the war ends, peace arrives and our lieutenant, after years in camps and on the run, finally can make his way back to the Greek island. He travels to Greece, catches the ferry to island and walks towards the village. He reaches the village in the late afternoon and is walking up the final stretch of hill up towards the centre of the village. He sees a woman in the square, his Greek girl. She is holding a baby in her arms. The lieutenant turns and walks away, never returning. He travels the world. Each Christmas the girl receives a postcard from some spot in the world – always anonymous and with no return address.
After many, many years, the man decides that he cannot live without seeing the girl at least one more time. He is now in his 60s. He makes his way to Greece, catches the ferry and repeats his journey of 35 years before. He walks to the village. He is walking up the hill towards the square and meets a young local boy. He asks “does Pelagia still live here?”. The boy says “I don’t know any Ioanna”. The man reflects and thinks. “She will be old now, 60. She was the daughter of Iannis”. The boy responds “that bitter old woman? She lives slightly outside the village” and indicates the house. Our lieutenant gets to the door and knocks. When the door opens, the girl who is now an old woman stands for a few seconds in shock and then hits him with all of her force and slams the door shut. He knocks and knocks and finally she opens. “Why did you do this to me? Why did you abandon me?”. “I saw you with a baby, I thought you had a baby, thought you had married, had found someone else… I didn’t want to stir up…” “Why? Why didn’t you ask? It was my sister’s baby. I was babysitting”.
Before I read this book I had the idea that life was like a 10 pin bowling alley when it is set up for a kid’s party. They put foam into the gutters so that all of the balls will reach the end and take down at least a pin or two. After reading the story, I realised that life does not have this foam protection. Life has big gutters, and it is quite possible to put my life into the gutter and not hit a single pin.
The positive thing is that it is never too late to start living the life we want. Life’s gutters are all in my mind. The past is gone Today I can decide to head a new direction, and the final destination changes. I only need change course by one degree and I may make a massive change in the new destination that I will reach and what will happen on the journey.
Jim Rohn says “It is possible to design and live an extraordinary life”. We measure life in hours, days, weeks and years – but this is not the right measure. Life is experiences. There are people that live 200 years of experiences in 40 years of life, and there are people who don’t live even a single year of experiences in 90 years of clock time.
“We die”. This is how the Cluetrain manifesto begins.
The human lifespan is 650,000 hours. One of those hours is your last hour. One of those days is your last day. This is an inevitability of life. We all will die. In that last moment, what will we have with us? Nothing. What will we leave? What will we remember? What will flash through our minds? What will it take so that in that moment, God turns and looks and says “now there is someone who really used the opportunity I gave her”?
Steven Covey says “Begin with the End in Mind”. Our end is a day where we face the end. No more opportunities. Our obituary will be written. What will it say?
Alfred Nobel had a unique view of his obituary while alive. He was one of three brothers. When Alfred was 55, one of his brother’s died. The newspapers confused the brothers and the next day’s edition came out with an obituary of Alfred. He had the unique opportunity of reading his own obituary at the age of 55; and he really did not like it. He was the inventor and mass producer of dynamite. Reading his obituary was the inspiration to change his life and leave a different legacy. Today we have the Nobel peace prize – because Alfred was so gutted to see that his legacy was going to be death and destruction that he spent the rest of his life creating the greatest current symbol of peace.
Aristotle said “we are what we habitually do”. If something is important, you must do it every day. If you say, “I will take some time next year and do that” – you will never do it. If something is important and will be part of our legacy it needs to be done every day and become routine.
“Carpe Diem. Momento Mori.” Seize the day. Remember we must die.
Legend has it that a slave would follow a Roman General on a victorious procession through Rome, his height of glory, reminding him that he is mortal. In ancient Rome, the words are believed to have been used on the occasions when a Roman general was parading through the streets during a victory triumph. Standing behind the victorious general was his slave, who was tasked to remind the general that, though his highness was at his peak today, tomorrow he could fall or be more likely brought down. The servant conveyed this by telling the general that he should remember, “Memento mori.” This finds ritual expression in the Catholic rites of Ash Wednesday when ashes are placed upon the worshipers’ heads with the words “Remember Man that you are dust and unto dust you shall return.”
P.S. If you liked this post you might also like The complete guide to personal habits: 158 reflections on being your best self and 9 Reasons why you are Stuck.