The Other Half: Why Habits Are Not Enough5 min read

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“Half of success is just showing up.” This famous quote, attributed to Woody Allen, emphasizes the importance of habits and consistency. Yet the first question that arises in my mind when I read this is, “What about the other half?”

Building habits is not the end-all-be-all of personal development. It’s not the ultimate key to success either. It’s just a basic requirement. You will surely need to establish habits if you want to make changes in your life, save more money, learn a language, improve any skill, write a book, build a business, establish a relationship, or take care of your health.

It’s true, then, that habits are essential. If you haven’t built the habit of meditating, working out, or playing the piano, you can never hope to become any good at meditation, nor stay in shape, nor produce great music. Without habits, you’ve got nothing—in a way it’s like you haven’t even started.

But habits are just the beginning. If you stop there, you’ll be going through the motions everyday, but your progress will be slow, and you will soon get to a plateaux.

Buildings Habits vs. Living Intentionally

It’s one thing to have the habit of spending time watching a movie with your partner after dinner; it’s something else to watch a movie because you were eagerly waiting to spend some time together.

It’s one thing to have the habit of meditating 20 minutes every morning; it’s something else to meditate with the strong intention of staying focus in every moment and every breath.

It’s one thing to have the habit of reading 10 pages of non-fiction every day; it’s something else to read each page with the specific goal of absorbing all the information you can.

It’s one thing to have the habit of showing up at the gym and doing your reps; it’s something else to treat every rep as a challenge for you to give 120% of what you’ve got.

It’s one thing to have the habit of praying before bed, because you want spirituality to be part of your life, or because you think you should. It’s something else to pray “with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind” (Matthew 22:37-40).

It’s one thing to have the habit of singing three songs when you’re taking a shower; it’s something else to sing your songs as if you are on the finals of The Voice.

What is the difference?

In the first case of the examples above, you are just going through the motions. It’s kind of effortless—and that is precisely the point of habits, which are automatic behaviors. You show up, but you don’t show up with all that you’ve got, because you don’t need to. You’ve already built the habit, and now that’s just a routine.

In the second case, you are being intentional. You are showing up with more awareness, presence, and focus. Your goal is not to “just do it”, to show up, to tick an item of your todo list. Rather, you want to make that activity more alive. You want to make it count. You are determined to show up with your all.

Yes, this means that you are putting in more effort—that is the whole point. You give more of yourself, and you get more in return. You are extracting every drop of life that that activity can give you, and striving to show up as your best self.

That is the other half.

Deliberate Practice

Whenever you are trying to learn something new, improve any skill, or achieve a long-term goal, you always start with building the right habits. That is the foundation, the “Stage 1” of the journey.

Don’t stop there, or else something in you will check out. You will not give all that you are if you are satisfied with just showing up. You will not be as present, because you have turned on the autopilot. Now your mind can wonder off into other things in the background—and it will.

If you are no longer paying attention, no longer applying effort, no longer stretching yourself, then you are no longer growing. Putting in more hours, more days, will not be the answer.

Most people are familiar with the idea, popularized by Malcolm Gladwell, that with 10,000 hours of deliberate practice you achieve mastery in any given field or activity. Then they go on to build a daily habit to perform that activity, so they can start clocking their hours. This is all well and good, but most people forget that it’s not just 10,000 hours of practice that they need to aim for, but 10,000 hours of deliberate practice.

What is deliberate practice? It is practicing in a way that is intentional, mindful, and effortful—the opposite of just going through the motions.

If all you do is to go through the motions, then you’ll become good at going through the motions. But if what you are doing is showing up with full attention and full intention, stretching yourself beyond your current limits, then that is what you will get—you’ll be growing beyond your limits.

Practice doesn’t make perfect. Perfect practice makes perfect.”

— Vince Lombardi (Legendary football coach)

Before the recovering perfectionists out there protest, let me make this clear: perfect practice is a noble aim, but an impossible state. It is simply the process of continuously stretching yourself and expressing your true potential. Not something you measure yourself against for self-worth.

In a Nutshell

Building habits is the first fundamental step in any journey of learning, improving, or goal achievement. Yet it represents just a basic level of commitment to that activity, and can easily lead to a point where you are just going through the motions.

For some of the habits we need to build that might be enough—like the habit of eating a fruit instead of a cake when you crave for sugar, the habit of flossing your teeth, or the habit of doing the dishes right after a meal. But for the activities closely related to our aspirations and core values, focusing on habits after the initial stages can be a way of playing small and coasting.

Routine is great in the beginning, but can hurt you once it’s well established. Routine can hurt your meditation, your marriage, your sports performance, or your deeper growth in any field. If that has started happening with you, then you will need to shake things up.

How? Be more deliberate and purposeful. Aim to live with awareness and willpower. That is the life of the higher mind—intentional, rather than habitual. Energize your activities with more presence, emotion, and determination. That is the result of a deeper level of commitment, and it will lead to deeper—and more fulfilling—results.

Next Steps

Think of the two most important areas of your life.

Chose one or two activities in each of them, where you want to do more than just go through the motions. Make a strong commitment to yourself to show up more intentionally and wholeheartedly in them, bringing forth your best self.

Finally, consider creating a reminder for this behavior shift, so you remember to do it.

If you found this article inspiring or insightful, consider sharing it with your friends and family.

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