I love this quote. It’s simple and succinct, but it has a profound meaning. And the fact it is often attributed to Aristotle seems to give it even more street cred.
But apparently Aristotle never actually said this, at least not as succinctly. It was first written in this way by an American historian named Wil Durant who was summarising some of Aristotle’s work. The full quote, written by Durant (not Aristotle), was this:
“We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act, but a habit.”
Regardless of whether the words were coined by Aristotle in ancient Greece or rephrased many years later by Durant, to me, the philosophy behind the quote remains the same and provides a very powerful message…
If you want to change who you are, change your behavior.
Or to put this in true Dad terminology – actions speak louder than words!
Okay, I’ve now thoroughly butchered both Aristotle and Durant’s work, but my point is this. All the little habits, both good and bad, that we repeatedly practice each day, add up over time to define who we are.
And making small but conscious changes to our daily habits can have a significant and meaningful long-term impact on our lives and those of our children.
Why focus on habits?
Many of our children’s personality traits are already ingrained in their DNA from the day they are born, and there’s very little that we as parents can, or should, do to have any impact on this aspect of who they are.
However, when it comes to our children’s’ habits, this is one area that is almost 100% influenced by environmental rather than biological factors. So, if we are going to focus anywhere, then helping our children develop good habits from a young age is a great place to start.
But where do we start and which habits are most important to focus on?
There are hundreds of little habits that we perform every day without even thinking about it. And this is mostly a good thing, as it allows us to live our lives more efficiently without having to consciously focus on every little decision we encounter. It means that we can effectively run on auto-pilot for much of the time.
The reality is that most of these little habits won’t have any major long-term impact on our children’s lives, so there’s no need to obsess over them. We need to focus on what actually matters.
The Pareto principle
I’m a big believer in the Pareto principle (also known as the 80/20 rule). This rule states that, for many events, roughly 80% of the effects come from 20% of the causes.
I think this is definitely true for our habits and the habits we teach our kids.
Whilst most of the habits won’t make a big difference, there are a few key areas that are really important and will make the biggest impact.
So it’s important that we can identify which are the important areas, i.e. the 20% that actually matter, and then focus our attention on these areas.
Choose your family’s focus areas
Identifying these key focus areas is a personal process that should be tied to your own core values and your family vision. It involves looking into the future and thinking about how you would like your kids to be when they are older, then working back from there. What’s important to one family may be different for another.
In my case, if I was to pick three key focus areas where I think I can have the biggest impact on my kid’s future, it would be these:
1. Healthy eating habits
This is something we can instill in our children from a young age that will have a positive impact on their whole lives. Many of the most common health issues impacting society can be prevented by establishing healthy diets. It’s a relatively easy habit to implement but so many people struggle with it throughout their whole lives.
2. Good learning habits
Teaching our kids to enjoy the process of learning, both at school and at home, will help set them up for success later in life. And the earlier you start the better.
Reading, singing and playing educational games with babies and young children has been shown to have huge long-term effects on their learning abilities. By developing a love of the learning process, the act of learning can become a natural and enjoyable habit rather than a forced effort.
3. Good money habits
You may be thinking that this is a strange one to include in my top three focus areas and my partner would possibly agree with you. In fact, her list is somewhat different from mine. But personally, I believe this is one area where I as a dad can teach my kids some lifelong habits from a very young age. Little things that are going to make a big difference later in their lives.
For instance, the habit of spending less than you make, the habit of donating money to a good cause and the habit of working for your own money. These are all things that we can influence, both through our own example as role models and through the behaviors and customs that we practice in our family life.
Think about what’s important to you
As I say, these are just my three examples and your list will most likely be different. However, the important thing is to focus on the areas that are most important to you and the ones where you actually think you can have a long-term impact.
Once you know which areas you want to focus on, it’s then about identifying processes you can put in place to help develop good habits.
Here’s what I recommend…..
Break it down into smaller habits
Under each of the core focus areas, there will be various smaller habits you can try to work on, which collectively, will make a difference. These are often age-dependent and may change over time.
In some cases, they may be ‘bad’ habits that you want to change or ‘good’ habits that you consciously want to develop.
For instance, in my example above, one of the core focus areas is ‘healthy eating habits’, which really represents the end goal. But in order to achieve that goal we can identify a series of smaller habits that will help us get there.
We can then group these habits into things we want to start (or continue) and things we want to stop (or avoid).
Good eating habits we want to create:
- Eating more vegetables
- Preparing healthy meals on a Sunday night (i.e. weekly food prep)
- Carrying water bottles whenever we go out
Bad eating habits we want to avoid
- Using fast food as a reward for good behavior
- Eating in front of the television
- Using pre-packaged and processed foods
Make the new habits stick
Once we’ve identified this list of habits, how can we make sure we actually stick to them so that they become ingrained in our lifestyle?
Well, there are various strategies we can utilize to help us change our habits. One that I particularly like is the process recommended by James Clear.
In his book called Atomic Habits, James Clear recommends applying the following four questions to any new habit that you want to make stick.
- How can I make it obvious?
- How can I make it attractive?
- How can I make it easy?
- How can I make it satisfying?
To demonstrate how this may look in practice, let’s see how we could apply the strategy to each of my three focus areas.
Focus area 1 – Healthy Eating
- Goal: to create healthy children, who then become healthy adults and avoid long-term health problems
- Desired habit: the kids enjoy eating vegetables (at least 5 a day) and they don’t snack on junk food
Make it obvious
- You could make the good habit obvious by filling the main fridge in the kitchen with lots of vegetables.
- Meanwhile, make the bad habit less obvious by hiding any unhealthy food in a spare fridge or cupboard somewhere else. Or better still, don’t have any in the house at all.
Make it attractive
- You could try to choose lots of seasonal vegetables with different colors.
- You could also use storybooks about vegetables and fruit to make it more attractive to kids.
Make it easy
- Always have pre-prepared carrot sticks stored in the fridge as an easy snack.
- Maybe try blending fruits and vegetables into a smoothie to make it easier for kids to consume.
Make it satisfying
- You could start growing a vegetable garden and have the kids help with that.
- Creating a game or a competition is another great way to make a habit more satisfying (e.g. they collect points each day for the different vegetables and keep score).
Focus area 2 – Good learning habits
- Goal: learn to play an instrument and develop a lifelong love of music
- Desired habit: the kids enjoy practicing the guitar daily
Make it obvious
- Leave the guitar sitting in the living room (don’t hide it away)
Make it attractive
- Expose them to age-appropriate role-models who also play the guitar. This could be a cousin, a neighbor, or someone famous. It needs to be someone they look up to.
- You could even have pictures of these people displayed on the walls
Make it easy
- Maybe start with a four-string ukulele and then graduate to a six-string when they are older.
- Utilize other learning aids such as mobile apps and computer games or programs to assist the learning process
Make it satisfying
- You could help them organize a live concert for the next family event, which gives them something to work towards and a chance to show off their skills.
- Having older kids teach younger kids can also be a good way to make it satisfying
Focus area 3 – Good money habits
- Goal: help your kids avoid the debt trap as adults
- Desired habit: they earn, save and spend their own pocket money from a young age
Make it obvious
- Use money boxes and coins, rather than a bank account
- Have the money boxes sitting next to their bed so they see it every night
Make it attractive
- Let the kids paint their money boxes.
- Let them choose what they are saving for and put a picture of it next to the money box.
Make it easy
- Pay their pocket money in dollar coins or notes so it’s highly tangible.
Make it satisfying
- Let them donate some of their money to a charity by visiting the location in person and handing over the money themselves.
- Maybe match their savings for bigger purchases
A goal without a plan is just a wish
In these examples, you can start to see how the four questions can be applied to just about any habit in order to increase your chances of actually sticking to them.
However, the key point of the exercise is that you first identify your goals and then you develop a process to help you achieve them.
A goal such as ‘eating healthy’ is not likely to happen unless you have a process, or a series of habits to help you achieve this.
It works for adults too
One final example for you. This time a ‘grown-up’ real-life example of a goal I’ve recently set myself. Remember that’s it’s not just about teaching your kids good habits, you can also apply the same strategy to help improve your own habits, achieve your own goals and set a good example for your kids.
In my case, I decided I wanted to read more. Specifically, I have set myself the goal of reading 52 books in a year.
Considering I’ve only been reading a handful of books each year previously, this is actually quite a big audacious goal.
Having the goal is one thing, but in order to achieve this goal, I needed to implement a process.
The first thing I did was to take a speed-reading course. This has immediately doubled my reading speed, which effectively halves the amount of time I will need to dedicate to this goal.
The second thing I have done is to start waking up earlier each day. I’ve set my alarm for 5am and I’m using the extra hour in the morning to dedicate to focused reading time.
This has meant that rather than having to continually focus on the bigger goal of 52 books in a year, the only thing I need to do is to make sure I get out of bed each morning when the alarm sounds.
As soon as I have achieved that step, which literally takes 5 seconds, then my morning routine kicks in and the process of reading for an hour naturally follows.
This is what’s known as habit stacking. You attach the harder habit (e.g. reading for an hour) to an easier habit (e.g. waking up one hour earlier).
And that’s how you achieve your goal.
“A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step”.
There you go, I started the article with a misquoted Greek proverb and I’m now finishing it with an equally misquoted Chinese proverb.
Anyway, the main point is this…
Whilst the end goal is important, it’s actually the process you follow that is most important.
Here’s a quick recap of the process I am suggesting and how this could be applied to you as a dad.
First, apply the 80/20 rule to identify just a few core focus areas where you think you can have the biggest impact on your family, then set some long-term goals in each of these areas.
Next, work on a process to achieve these goals. Start by identifying the individual small habits that you want to change and/or develop. These can be age-dependent and may change over time, but they are always tied to the core goal.
Now think about how you can make each of these habits obvious, attractive, easy and satisfying in order to ensure you stick to them.
And finally, practice them daily, weekly and monthly until they become ingrained.
You’ll know they are ingrained when instead of saying, “we try to eat healthy in our family” you simply say “we eat healthy in our family”.
Once it’s truly a habit it should not feel like an effort, it’s just part of who you are.
And after you’ve mastered those habits you can keep stacking new habits on top of the old ones for incremental improvements.
What you will see is a compounding effect, as, over time, all these small changes add up to make a huge difference in the lives of you and your children.
Those big audacious goals that seemed a long way off at first can be achieved by following a process that will help get you there one small step at a time.
Good luck. Let me know how you go.
Previously published on Thedadtrain.com.
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