I want to break free, I want to break free
I want to break free from your lies
You’re so self-satisfied I don’t need you
I’ve got to break free
God knows, God knows I want to break free
— Queen, I Want to Break Free
When does a great habit ground another habit before it can take off? Are habits mutually exclusive in this way, or can we stack them together into a meaningful routine? There’s no reason why we can’t have the kind of life we desire. We just have to break free of ourselves first.
Meaningful routines develop from saying no to the things that steal our time away, and instead using that time for something better. I write almost every morning, no matter where I am in the world, and click publish before the world forces me to decide whether to say yes or no. In this way I’ve gained momentum and an overwhelming desire to keep the streak alive. When I’m sick or traveling or my day is otherwise upside down from the norm I still find a way to publish something. On those days, checking the box may not lead to my best writing, but it’s still one more vote for the type of person I want to become, as James Clear puts it. That’s a win.
We know when we’re in a bad routine. Our lives feel unproductive and lack direction. We might have obligations we can’t say no to that are holding us back. The only way to break through that wall is with momentum. Small habits strung together and repeated regularly are the building blocks of better.
We often imprison ourselves with self-limiting beliefs. Breaking free of these beliefs is essential to living a meaningful life. Nelson Mandela spent years in prison, doing manual labor during the day. His cell was barely big enough to move in, and yet he developed a routine that would keep him fit and focused for decades:
“He’d begin with running on the spot for 45 minutes, followed by 100 fingertip push-ups, 200 sit-ups, 50 deep knee-bends and calisthenic exercises learnt from his gym training (in those days, and even today, this would include star jumps and ‘burpees’ – where you start upright, move down into a squat position, kick your feet back, return to squat and stand up). Mandela would do this Mondays to Thursdays, and then rest for three days.”. — Gavin Evans, The Conversation, How Mandela stayed fit: from his ‘matchbox’ Soweto home to a prison cell
Environment plays a big part in the meaningful routines we create. For years I didn’t write, until I created the environment for myself to do the work. It’s the same with exercise and flossing and productive work as it is for binge eating or drinking or immersing ourselves in distraction: the environment we create for ourselves matters a great deal. If we want to fly, we must clear the damn runway.
So how do we clear the runway? Designing a meaningful routine begins with asking ourselves, just who do we want to be? What does a perfect day look like for us anyway? Where do we wake up every morning? What does our first interaction with the world look like? Are we grabbing our phones and checking social media or are we jumping right into our first great habit? Those first moments matter a great deal, for they set the table for our day, and our days.
When we look at someone like Nelson Mandela following through on his promise to himself despite the conditions he was living in, who are we to accept our own excuses and distractions? We’ve got to break free of our stories and get on the path to what we might become. It’s now or never friend.