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Friday, May 25, 2012

The One True Secret of Success

Many of us have a favorite columnist or writer that we really enjoy reading; someone who’s words leave an impression on us, inspire us, and with whom our ideas, values and/or philosophy resonate-we look forward to “hearing” from them.  For me, Alexander Green is one of those writers.  Frequent readers of Throwing a Fit will recognize the name as I’ve featured Mr. Green’s work before.  This particular piece hit home for obvious reasons (you’ll see.)  I hope you enjoy it as much I did.  If so, leave me a message in the comments section and let me know!

The One True Secret of Success -by Alexander Green

Each year for the past 14 years, I made a weight goal as a New Year's resolution. The same one, in fact. With each passing year, however, I only drifted a little farther from it.

Yet something happened over the last 90 days. I went on a plant-based diet, ran and lifted weights nearly every day, lost 20 pounds, and got in the best shape I've been in in decades. According to Professor Roberta Anding, a registered dietician and Director of Sports Medicine at Baylor College of Medicine, I am now at my ideal weight.

The next challenge, of course, is maintaining it. But I really don't think I'll relapse. I've discovered that fit feels better than anything tastes. 
The weird part is that losing the weight wasn't that hard. I just took two bad habits - sedentary activity and mindless eating - and replaced them with better ones, something I could just as easily have done any time in the last 14 years but, for reasons of ignorance and apathy, didn't.

Habits govern our lives more than we acknowledge. A research study published in 2006 found that more than 40% of our daily actions are not decisions at all but habits. It's easy to fall into thoughtless routines and travel the same cow path through the day, throughout our lives even.

Why do we do this? Scientists say it is because the brain is constantly looking for ways to save energy and effort. It tries to make any routine into a habit as a way of ramping down. Beginning early in childhood, we develop a series of conditioned responses that lead us to react automatically and unthinkingly in most situations.

As a result, we tend to engage in the same activities, talk to the same people, eat the same foods, work on the same projects and deal with the same frustrations. Yet our habits - what we say to our kids each night, whether we save or spend, how we organize our work routines and whether we exercise - have an enormous impact on our health, productivity, financial security and happiness.

The truth is our lives don't change until we do. That happens when we move beyond dreaming, thinking, wishing and planning and start doing something about it each day.

Research suggests that the best way to get rid of an old habit is to replace it with a new and better one. When you get that familiar urge, you can reach for an apple instead of a Danish, head for the gym instead of the bar, turn on The Learning Channel instead of The Shopping Network. You override a bad habit by ingraining a new one. Experts say it generally takes about three weeks of consistent application for a new behavior to become routine.

Drastic action isn't required. Life is really a series of constant, tiny choices. Some call them microactions. They are the difference between doing nothing and moving forward. Microactions are small but they are not insignificant because they get you moving. And they compound. Over time a series of regular, constructive actions creates a tipping point. Small changes in behavior ultimately create monumental differences in our lives.

There are plenty of microactions you could take right now to improve your life, your health and your relationships. You could read 30 pages of a good book, take a walk, drink an extra glass of water, or call an old friend. Every time you complete a positive task, no matter how small, your brain gets an instant jolt of dopamine. This reward reinforces your behavior and helps cement the new habit.

I'm not suggesting that transforming a bad habit - especially a longstanding one - is necessarily quick or easy or simple. But with commitment, follow through and daily action, it is possible.

For example, business success generally goes to individuals who make a habit of getting to work a little earlier or staying a little later, who apply themselves a little longer. Investment success accrues to individuals who develop a habit of saving before spending and who have the discipline to stick with proven principles of wealth creation.

Need some help? According to author and life coach Brian Tracy, there are seven essential steps to developing a new habit:

1.  Make a firm decision. If you decide to exercise each morning, for example, when your alarm goes off, immediately get up and put on your exercise clothes. Don't give yourself an opportunity to procrastinate.

2.  Never allow an exception. Excuses and rationalizations destroy new habits in their infancy. Perform the new behavior religiously until it becomes automatic.

3.  Tell others. You become more disciplined and determined when you know others are watching to see if you have the willpower to follow through.

4.  Visualize your behavior. Imagine yourself acting as though you already have the new habit.

5.  Create an affirmation. Mental repetition increases compliance. Tell yourself something like, "I get up and get moving immediately at 6:00 each morning."

6.  Resolve to persist. Keep at it until you reach the point where it actually feels uncomfortable not doing what you promised you'd do.

7.  Reward yourself. Rewards reinforce behavior. You begin to associate the pleasure of the payoff with the new actions themselves.

Just as your good habits are responsible for most of the success and satisfaction you enjoy today, your bad habits are responsible for most of your problems and frustrations.

Most of us - deep inside - already know how to change this. It requires little more than transferring the discipline we already exercise in one part of our lives to some other part. For instance, you probably have friends or family members who are extremely disciplined about what they eat and drink but are completely undisciplined in their saving and spending habits - or vice versa.

Our natures are the same. It is our habits that separate us. Changing them allows you to take control of your destiny, overcome procrastination, revitalize relationships, achieve your ambitions, or obtain financial independence.

Real success is rarely the result of some one-time decision or a single Herculean effort. It is regular, sustained, positive behavior that creates lasting change. As Aristotle observed a few thousand years ago, "We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act, but a habit."

Maybe I'll get a chance to make some fresh resolution this New Year.

Alexander Green is the Investment Director of The Oxford Club. The Oxford Club Communique, whose portfolio he directs, is ranked among the top investment letters in the nation for 10-year performance by the independent Hulbert Financial Digest. Alex is the author of three national best sellers including, most recently, Beyond Wealth: The Road Map to a Rich Life. He has been featured on Oprah & Friends, CNBC, National Public Radio (NPR), Fox News and "The O'Reilly Factor," and has been profiled by The Wall Street Journal, BusinessWeek, Forbes, and Kiplinger's Personal Finance, among others. He currently lives in Charlottesville, Virginia and Winter Springs, Florida with his wife Karen and their children Hannah and David.


  1. Good Share! Some really valuable information here. Thanks for sharing your knowledge. Look forward to reading more of your articles. Voted up!

  2. Thank you so much for reading and commenting. So glad you enjoyed it.