This quote has always been a favourite, but it is only accurate if the habit in question is positive.
What happens if you are stuck in a pattern of behaviour that doesn’t serve you, but you continue to repeat it? What if you are not even aware of it?
It’s become so routine that you haven’t stopped to question why you do it, if you enjoy it and if it plays a role in moving you towards or away from your goals and highest values.
Going back to Aristotle’s quote, I would argue that excellence is the self-awareness to let go of the habits that no longer serve you. Here are the steps to creating excellence in your life:
Step 1 — Identify the habit.
You cannot change something you are not even aware of.
The starting point is to make a list of all your daily habits. These can be physical and mental habits but let’s start with the easy stuff.
What do you do when you wake up? Is there a specific order and way you like your morning to unfold?
Do you check your first thing or start your day with meditation or prayer?
Are there habits and rituals for when you start work? What do you do when you log into your computer for the day? Do you go straight into emails, browse some articles or act on your key priority?
Do you default to browsing every news app when you feel overwhelmed by work? Ruminating and worrying are mental habits you may not be aware of. It feels like you are doing something productive because you have dedicated energy to it, but it’s procrastination in disguise. If you are caught up in thinking long enough, you do not have to act.
As you go through your week, become aware of the rules you may have around the habits you do.
For example, do you only do specific activities on certain days or a time of day? Do you reserve certain habits only for weekends?
Write out a list of your rules and question whether they are grounded in rational thinking or something you made up? More importantly, does it make your day better or more challenging?
Maybe your rule is that you are not allowed to engage in any recovery activities before 5 PM. Given the research that you should be taking micro-breaks every 50 minutes, this will only destroy your productivity and leave you in an energy deficit.
Perhaps you have told yourself that the only way to unwind is with a glass of wine. This habit is your go-to strategy, and it has become a safety blanket because what happens if you stop the wine and feel even worse?
Once you have identified the undesirable behaviour, move on to step two.
Step 2 — Place this habit under a microscope.
Despite your best judgement, you know deep down that this habit isn’t serving you if you’re honest. But you keep it around because it meets a need. You wouldn’t do something if it weren’t serving you on some level.
The question to ask is, what’s the real payoff for you?
In an interview, RuPaul shared that he was notoriously late for every meeting or social engagement. He realised that he was addicted to the payoff of the adrenaline rush and the drama. One day he arrived early and realised the payoff of punctuality meant he was calm and confident and was never late again.
Addictions to overeating or after dinner snacking serve a need of providing comfort; equally, addictions like binge-watching Netflix serve a need for variety and escapism.
Consider the habit of checking your emails when you wake up in the middle of the night. Instead of taking some deep breaths and relaxing back to sleep, you convince yourself that the only reason you have woken up is that something urgent has come into your inbox.
You reach for your phone and have a huge sigh of relief when you discover everything is fine. The only new updates are some newsletters you subscribed to and have no intention of reading, if you’re honest. The payoff is the hit of dopamine you receive when you get the confirmation that everything is fine. Sound familiar?
No one said it has to make logical sense to indulge in these actions, but we do what we can to seek pleasure and avoid pain.
Now that you have identified the habit and its payoff, it’s time to let it go.
Step 3 — Let go of the old version of yourself.
This step may require you to go one level deeper. Letting go is more than just releasing a habit but letting go of the old version of yourself that no longer serves you. Perhaps you made up these rules and habits when you were much younger and in a different life stage. These habits served you then, but you find it difficult to accept that they are now hindering your progress.
The challenge is that we want to stay consistent with how we identify ourselves. Perhaps you identified yourself as the life of the party in your younger years, but now that you have a family, your priorities have changed. The hardest part about letting go of old habits is the feeling you are incongruent with who you are.
Author of Atomic Habits, James Clear, says that true behaviour change is identity change. Anyone can eat healthily once or twice or go for a walk now and then, but it is difficult to create sustainable change if you don’t change the belief behind the behaviour.
Don’t go for a run but call yourself a runner, meditator, or writer. You may feel like a fraud or inauthentic to yourself to change your identity without having a track record of running. The only way to convince yourself you are changing is to take action. Every time you write, you are creating evidence that you are a writer.
To let go of the old version of yourself, you need to consider who you would like to become.
You can journal about this and create a powerful version of your future self. Perhaps you want to change careers or take on a role that requires public speaking. To allow yourself to step into that person, you need to drop the habit of avoiding speaking opportunities and instead show up to every opportunity available to you.
Your present behaviours need to be in alignment with the person you are becoming.
I was coaching a client who suffered from severe food restriction. She wanted to change but didn’t know how to let go of the current version of herself. She liked what she saw in the mirror despite it being incredibly unhealthy and destructive.
We went onto Instagram and researched female athletes whose bodies she admired. She then put that image as the screensaver on her phone and laptop to get used to the new image she was working towards — someone who was fit, healthy, and above all, kind to herself.
This change doesn’t have to be so drastic for you. Maybe you want to ditch the habit of procrastination? Who epitomises success for you, and how can you create this persona for yourself? It is not trying to be someone else but incorporating the traits they role model into your being.
Replace the habit of putting off the task for the habit of starting, even if you only work on the task for 5 minutes. Every time you keep your commitment to yourself, you create evidence that you are no longer a procrastinator but someone you can trust.
Step 4 — Thank the habit.
Marie Kondo is a Japanese organising consultant and best-selling author. In her de-clutter process, she says we must pick up the article we would like to get rid of and ask a simple question. Does it spark joy? If it sparks joy, you keep the item. If it doesn’t speak joy, you thank it for its service and then proceed to get rid of it or donate it.
It’s the same with your habits and this old version of yourself. Does it spark joy? You don’t have to toss yourself out, just a few bits and pieces that don’t belong anymore. Maybe you renovated your lounge to be more modern, and you have some old ornaments that clash now? You don’t have to adjust the lounge to the old ornaments; simply toss out the parts in no longer in alignment.
Maybe you decided your old ways of mid-week drinking or sleep deprivation are clashing with your new updated version of valuing vitality and creativity?
Thank those habits and the part of you that served its purpose. But now, it’s time to move on swiftly.
Give yourself permission to change your mind and update your habits to your current values.
Letting go of old habits is hard change. It doesn’t happen overnight, and you will fall off the wagon.
When creating new behaviour patterns and habits, imagine you have train tracks embedded into your subconscious. They run deep. You can’t remove the old tracks, but you can always lay down fresh ones on top.
You are only human, and you will fall back into old patterns now and then, especially when you feel stressed. It is not a failure to revert to old ways; it is human nature.
What matters is having the self-awareness to notice you are back in old patterns and course-correct accordingly. The more self-aware you are about your triggers, the quicker you can recover when going down the old train tracks.
“We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act, but having the self-awareness to let go of the habits that no longer serve us.” — Aristotle and Lori Milner.
Here’s to letting go.