Habits aren’t all that different from dollars, if you think about it.
Little things that add up, if we can figure out how to make it happen. We invest in them and they compound.
That happens, whether we’re talking about a good, healthy habit — or a bad one.
My daughter has invested in drawing every day for the last three years, and that compounded into her becoming an artist.
My mother-in-law invested in smoking two packs of cigarettes a day for 50 years. That compounded into heart disease and vascular dementia. Not exactly the return on her investment she was looking for — but there it is.
So, I’m sitting here thinking about my own current habits and some that I want to start investing — and considering how they’ve already compounded and how they might compound over the next five years.
If you want to do the same thing, just think of a few areas of your life. I chose writing, reading, money, exercise, learning, and personal relationships. Then think about what habits you already have (you do have them, good and/or bad) and those you want to start.
Then think about what it might be like, if you stuck to a small habit in each of those areas every day for five years. Not forever. Just the next five years.
Why Five Years?
It’s a nice round number.
It’s also long enough for your habit to really come to fruition and compound. But not so long that it seems like the future, if you know what I mean. You can do a lot in five years, but it’s not too far away.
Five years is also long enough to learn how to do something completely new. You can start from scratch and be competent at almost anything in five years.
Where will you be in five years?
I’ll be a year into an empty nest. Ruby starts ninth grade this year. As heart-breaking as it is to think about, Kevin’s parents are unlikely to be well enough to still live with us five years from now. Alzheimer’s is brutal and unrelenting.
This is the one good habit I have down solid.
I’ve written every nearly every day since I was a little girl. For the last fifteen years my goal has been ten minutes a day. That’s it. Most days I write more than that, but I get full credit as long as I hit 10 minutes.
But even before I had an articulated 10-minutes-a-day habit, I was writing every day. That habit spans at least my entire adult life, but let’s just think about the last five years.
Since 2014 my writing habit has compounded into two books published by major publishers. Also thousands of blog posts. I’ve become a top writer here on Medium. I’ve earned a graduate degree in creative writing.
I also built a seriously cool writing community that’s turned into a thriving business. Which means that after decades of poverty or being one or maybe two steps ahead of poverty — I’m not poor anymore.
Having a daily writing habit has impacted my life on every single level.
Continuing to invest in that habit for the next few years, I expect, will lead to more published novels. In fact, if I only ever write fiction for 10 minutes a day, I’d be able to write a book a year. That’s five more novels in the next five years.
I also expect that continuing to teach and blog — more writing — will only make Ninja Writers stronger and more active and even more awesome than it already is.
Reading is one of those habits that it’s really easy to lie to yourself about.
If you love reading and you buy a lot of books — it can feel like that’s the same as actually reading them. I know how weird that sounds, but it’s true. Your brain tells you that you’re a big reader, but when you actually pay attention you’re not reading as much as you think you are. Or want to.
I hate to say this, but I’ve gotten into the habit of reading for work and reading for school (which I don’t even have to do anymore, since I graduated six months ago) — but not reading intentionally, pleasurably, like a writer.
I’m especially not reading fiction the way I want to, and really need to as a fiction writer. I’ve gotten into the habit of figuring that TV and movies are enough. (And, I’ll go on the record as saying I think they’re important. But they can’t replace reading. They should enhance it.)
Reading 100 books a year for the next five years will compound into a self-education and deepen my understanding of writing.
This is pretty meta, right? I mean, we’re talking about habits compounding like money. And now — a money habit.
Here’s my habit now: I’m completely haphazard with money, even though I really don’t want to be. Everything gets paid on time, but my family has a bunch of income streams and I don’t even really know exactly how much is coming in.
We’re a complex, multi-generational family with a lot of people, too. So it’s difficult to keep on top of how much is actually going out.
My husband and I have too much debt. I have a rather staggering amount of student load debt. And we’re constantly teetering on the edge of disaster — or at least it seems like we are — no matter how much we earn.
Tackling all of my money issues is beyond the scope of this post, but I’d like to get out of the habit of constantly living right up to the edge of (or even beyond) our means and into the habit of paying our savings account every month, right off the top. Before any other bills or expenses or whatever.
If we save $100 a month every month for five years — sixty months — that’s $6000. That’s without (haha) compound interest. I know next to nothing about investing, but five years is plenty of time to learn.
Even without that, though, $6000 is a solid savings. And (this is huge) it’s money that probably would have just slipped away, otherwise. It would have been absorbed or spent on things that I probably won’t remember in five years.
And $100 is, of course, an arbitrary number. If we were richer, it might be $1000 a month, and then we’d have $60,000 in five years. If someone were to save $10 a month for five years, that’s $600 in five years — and if all they can really, really afford to save is $10 a month, that $600 will be significant.
My exercise habits are . . . non-existent. Especially right now. They’ve been better in the past.
But right now? Right now I’m recovering from some seasonal depression and dealing with some serious homesickness — and that’s resulted in me spending most of every day just kind of holed up in my bedroom working.
Since I’m a writer, working means sitting on my ass.
As a result, this winter I’ve gained 20 pounds. I’m having trouble with arthritis that I’d had under control. And I generally just don’t feel great.
If I invest thirty minutes a day in exercise for the next five years, that will compound into a healthier middle age, which will compound into a healthier old age. It will help me avoid cancer — which all of my grandparents and my mother died from (my dad is a two-time surviver.)
The list of benefits that come from thirty minutes a day of moderate exercise gives it a really mind-blowing ROI. It’s embarrassing that I suck at it so badly.
There’s a YMCA one block from my house. And I have an Audible account just begging me to take walks so I can listen to books.
In fact, I started today. After dinner I walked for half an hour and listened to Stephen King’s The Outsider.
Learn Something Completely New
I am in the habit of declaring that I can’t learn to play the guitar. Or how to speak Spanish. My brain just doesn’t work that way. Languages don’t come naturally to me — Spanish or reading music. I’m not coordinated enough. I can’t think in two languages.
I’ve wanted to learn how to make my own clothes for the last twenty years, but I’ve never really tried. My husband gave me a sewing machine for Christmas two years ago and it’s still in the box.
I spent years wanting to grow a garden, but was in the habit of saying that I have a black thumb. I can’t do it. But last year? I worked at every single day for months and had a beautiful backyard garden that actually bore real fruit and vegetables.
And on. And on.
If I shift my bad habit of saying I can’t do something into a habit of practicing one thing — playing the guitar, learning Spanish, sewing, whatever — consistently for five years even if I’m not good at it, it will compound into a skill. A real skill that I’m really capable of.
I have a habit of keeping to myself. Keeping my head down. Not putting myself into the mix.
I’ve just moved from Nevada, where I lived for more than 30 years, to Pennsylvania. I work from home and for the first time in decades, I’m not in school. So I‘m struggling to make friends.
At Ruby’s soccer games I don’t sit with the other team parents. Kevin and I sit near one goal, and at the half, when my kid moves to tend the other goal, I move to that end.
I lose track of time and when I look up, I realize I haven’t talked to my dad or my siblings or my best friend in Las Vegas (or my best friend in Reno) for months. Not on purpose. It just — happens.
Making a habit of reaching out to someone every day for five years will compound into a full, robust social life and an even closer relationship with my family than I have now.
I started today by speaking with my neighbor across street when I saw him walking by my house and committing to him to go tomorrow to the church where he’s the musical director.
Baby steps. Little habits. They add up — which is the nature of compounding interest, right?
The Every Day Novelist
The Commonplace Book Project Billy Gibbons (Wikimedia Commons) "Until you learn to play what you want to hear, you're…
Shaunta Grimes is a writer and teacher. She is an out-of-place Nevadan living in Northwestern PA with her husband, three superstar kids, two dementia patients, a good friend, Alfred the cat, and a yellow rescue dog named Maybelline Scout. She’s represented by Elizabeth Bennett at Transatlantic Literary Agency and her most recent book is The Astonishing Maybe. She’s on Twitter @shauntagrimes and is the original Ninja Writer.