11 Highest Compounding Life Habits to Build Your Ideal Self

Jonah Malin


My mom, a personal trainer for over 30 years, see’s clients making the same mistakes every January. 

They set a large weight loss goal supported by unrealistic outcomes. Before coming to her, they’ve attempted to simultaneously cut calories, triple their weekly workouts, and eliminate alcohol.

This approach is rarely sustainable.

In reality, one of three things happen:

  • They burn out and go back to old habits.
  • They get frustrated after a plateau and give up.
  • They hit a milestone, but don’t know what to do next. 

It has nothing to do with motivation or desire. All of these people want to change their life. However, we often place ourselves under immense stress to achieve big, visible results. Instead of chasing massive outcomes, my mom has to teach them that meaningful improvements often go unnoticed.

An overweight adult who has eaten poorly since childhood may need months to break bad habits and replace them with good ones. Recommending they turn their life upside down is overwhelming — but they can swap their Monday soda for a water. Then the next week, they might commit to watching a television episode on the treadmill instead of the couch. 

These one percent improvements slowly compound into a daily lifestyle her client can happily maintain.

“Every action you take is a vote for the type of person you wish to become. No single instance will transform your beliefs, but as the votes build up, so does the evidence of your new identity.” — James Clear

Goals are necessary for setting a direction — but they’ll only get you so far. Your system of daily habits is where you’ll find a deeper sense of satisfaction and accomplishment.

Every compounding habit recommended below is something I have tried and researched extensively. Ultimately, this combination helped me cross off meaningful milestones in life on my path to becoming a more self-aware, focused, and productive person. The key is to start small, then adjust and scale to fit your personal needs.

Go to bed at the same time, wake up at the same time 

Waking up is the first part of your daily ritual. Screw that up and you'll be spending the next two hours trying to get back on track.

I went to bed and woke up at the same time every weekday in college— it was an incredible way to learn self-discipline. Not to mention, quality sleep habits help you soak up new information, improve concentration, sharpen planning and memory skills, and benefit long-term brain functionality. 

How you end the day is as important as how you start the day. Consistently get them both right and you're setting the tone for a productive year. 

Write it down or write it off

The great minds on building habits, from James Clear to Jack Butcher, stress the importance of writing down actions to clearly visualize the bigger picture. When you put your tasks and goals into writing, your brain starts processing how to make them happen.

It doesn’t have to be anything crazy. For example, I answer some variation of these questions every evening:

  • What did I accomplish today?
  • What did I learn today?
  • How could I improve upon a mistake? 
  • If I can finish one project to make tomorrow successful, what would it be? 

However, if you want to be more detailed, studies show writing down a vivid description of your thoughts makes you up to 1.4 times more likely to succeed than someone who didn’t write anything down.

In other words, write to make your motivations real. Reflect to put them into action. 

Automate simple decisions

We make 35,000 choices per day. Deciding what to eat and wear. When to check email. If we should workout at 8 AM versus 6 PM.

All of these choices paralyze decision-making, ultimately leading us to do nothing or procrastinate. Why not simplify your life and take away as many decisions as possible? Meal prep. Wear the same outfits. Set strict windows for email. Workout in the mornings. 

Automating insignificant decisions will leave you with far more time to focus on what matters.

Set strict rules for how people reach you

Last year I monitored five different emails throughout the day — and I constantly checked each one on my phone. Eating breakfast and emailing. Working out and emailing. Reading and emailing. 

It was terrible.

Now, my work email is the only one I pay attention to between 9 AM and 6 PM. My personal Gmail is active between 7 PM and 9 PM. Friends and family can text me. When I’m not using my phone as an accessory to work, it’s sitting in another room. 

The average person checks their phone over 160 times every day — don’t be average.

Work in short fifteen-minute sprints

It’s better to be highly productive in short bursts than partially focused for long periods of time. 

Cal Newport found this to be true when doing research for his book How to Become a Straight-A Student. Newport explains how most students subscribe to the formula: work accomplished = time spent studying. 

In reality, the formula should be: work accomplished = time spent x intensity of focus. Newport recommends increasing the intensity of focus in shorter intervals while taking bigger gaps to recharge in between work. 

“Jason, a straight-A student from Penn, used the term “pseudo-work” to describe the low-focus, time-intensive marathon style of work. I think this term is apt. Pseudo-work feels like work. It’s hard and time is being spent. But it’s not really accomplishing much.”

Focus is the differentiating factor. 

Whenever I try and tackle a big task in one sitting, I almost always end up distracted midway. One of my newer micro-habits is to channel all of my energy into a project for fifteen minutes. If I’m writing an article, I’ll sit down and get as far along as I can. Then, I take a productive break by reading or stretching. 

I’ve even applied this concept to my workouts — I’ll do intense HIIT training for a short period rather than long, low-intensity weight training sessions. 

The returns on a pure fifteen-minute session will surprise you. 

Keep a running index card to-do list

This is a trick I picked up from a conversation between Tim Ferris and Ryan Holiday. 

Rather than make a to-do list in the morning, I write down everything I want to accomplish on an index card the night before. On one side is a list of smaller tasks (editing an article, updating my newsletter, brainstorming topics) and on the other side are one or two big projects (doing research, writing a case study, drafting marketing emails). 

I can’t start the small, often more enjoyable, tasks until the larger one’s are complete. I’ve always been slightly disorganized with multi-tasking tendencies. A simple priorities list has completely eliminated my bad habit. 

It’s the very last thing I do in a workday and it sets me up for success tomorrow. 

Build white space into your calendar

Not working when you have a lot to get done sounds counterproductive.

But as writer and designer Jocelyn K. Glei explained, “If our lives are over-cluttered and over-booked, we can’t focus properly on anything. What’s more, this way of working actually shrinks our ability to think creatively.”

Glei compares white space in design, which is carefully placed to balance the rest of the page, to daily schedules. Without white space our lives are over-cluttered and we can’t focus properly on anything.

The goal of your day is not to do as much as possible. It’s to do what matters. White space will teach you the difference. 

Create physical barriers for bad habits

Bad decisions compound at a faster rate than good habits. Why? Becuase they're an easy gateway to something worse. Staying up late to watch a Netflix episode leads to other poor choices like sleep loss, snacking, and sedentary evenings. 

In his book, Atomic Habits: An Easy & Proven Way to Build Good Habits & Break Bad Ones, James Clear talks about increasing the steps it takes to indulge a bad habit. 

“The seed of every habit is a single, tiny decision. But as that decision is repeated, a habit sprouts and grows stronger. Roots entrench themselves and branches grow. The task of breaking a bad habit is like uprooting a powerful oak within us. And the task of building a good habit is like cultivating a delicate flower one day at a time.”

Let’s say Netflix is your obstacle. Remove it from all devices, set a time limit on your television, and put the remote in a drawer in another toom. When you feel the urge to watch an episode, you’ll have to bypass multiple psychical barriers to get to it.

Discipline is a decision. Help yourself make the right one. 

Start a commonplace book

Another habit I picked up from Ryan Holiday is a commonplace book. If your days have anything to do with creativity, writing, speaking, or leading, a commonplace book will change your life. 

Holiday explained, “A commonplace book is a central resource or depository for ideas, quotes, anecdotes, observations and information you come across during your life and didactic pursuits.”

Basically, when I come across something relevant or interesting, I write it down on an index card and categorize it in a tiny organizer. 

A commonplace book is like having a personal encyclopedia of knowledge and inspiration designed specifically for your life. 

Track macros to better understand your body

Not everything is about productivity skill-building.

Personally, tracking macros (and water) helps me understand my mind and body better. 

After doing it every day for over a year, I know how much protein, fat, and carbohydrates I need to remain energized throughout the day. All it takes is a cheap food scale and a free app like MyFitness Pal. 

Everyones want to hack their internal system by getting caffeinated or relying on trendy adaptogen supplements — but nutrition is the only long-term solution. 

Text someone you appreciate 

This last one’s simple: You are the sum of the people closest to you.

When making any lifestyle change, your support system is everything. Remind them of their importance.

Forget resolutions. Continuous improvement is what we’re after.

“The man who moves a mountain begins by carrying away small stones.” — Confucius.

As Kelli María Korducki recently wrote in Forge: “The glamorous achievement of a big and major goal is won in small and unglamorous increments.”

Success often comes in tiny, unglamorous moments compounding over time. That’s how you build your ideal self — by checking off goal after goal, achieved through tiny daily habits. 

So, how small are you willing to get?

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I am a content strategist, career advice author, and contributing writer based in Washington, DC. Join me as I explore health & wellness, productivity, philosophy, and life. Find me @Beyond Definition // Medium // Ladders // jonahmalin.com/barelyweekly

Washington, DC

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