A simple trick to help you actually stick to your habits and goals

“I can’t reward myself until I make my first million in my business,” my 17-year-old client said. In between this current moment and that goal were other milestones, like his pre-university exams, going to university, and then establishing his business. Meaning, a long way more.

At the rate he was driving himself, he’d burn out.

I explained the concept of burnout to him and the importance of tiny rewards along the way to continue to spur him on. That neurochemical feeling of reward, via dopamine released into the gaps between your brain’s nerve cells, feels great—and that makes you want to keep going on.

While you could reach for that beautifully brewed shot of espresso or indulge in another episode of your favorite drama as your everyday reward, there is another way to do it. (Or you could pair this with your espresso shot, to turbocharge.)

One exercise I’ve been using personally and professionally for the last decade is the Jar of Awesome, which I learned from tech adviser and New York Times bestselling author Tim Ferriss.

How the ‘Jar of Awesome’ works

Put simply, the Jar of Awesome is where you list down all the things you’ve done so you can track your progress and be proud of yourself.

The format is simple: Some people fill up slips of papers to feed into a jar, sort of like a piggy bank. If you like to track progress, then a list would work better. Those who love physical journaling would prefer it with pen and paper, or within a designated notebook. Those of us who go paper-free or like to search for old entries easily would benefit from a digital list.

What goes on the list? Anything you’ve started or continued.

It doesn’t matter how small or silly the task is or how easily someone else does it. This is often people’s biggest protest against putting things in their jar. An example I tell my clients would be the first time I assembled flat-packed shelves. I took about two hours longer than the instructions said. They were a tad wonky. The point was, I did it! I defied my old belief system that I could never do something like that.

Other examples can be noticing your anxiety and grounding yourself faster than you used to, or ruminating less. That’s progress. It could be continuing your workout or doing another language lesson, even if you were close to convincing yourself to do something else instead.

It’s very easy to get excited reading a book on building habits, healing ourselves, or changing something about our lives, but it’s not easy to start or continue implementing it. In other words, consuming is easy. Doing is hard.

As human beings, we are primed to sabotage our progress. So building on our daily discipline is worth celebrating.

Spend five minutes every evening entering things into your Jar of Awesome. You could also schedule monthly or quarterly reviews to take stock of what’s in your jar, to see how you’ve been growing and how you’d like to refine your processes and goals.

Why this simple trick works:

1. It creates momentum

Many of us believe we just need to find inspiration, except that motivation isn’t the cat that appears when you stick your head out of the window to call it. Motivation may be elusive, but momentum is easily created. And watching ourselves take step after step—due to the Jar of Awesome—creates a sense of pride.

This sense of accomplishment in itself feels rewarding. And the more we practice our new craft, the easier it becomes. And that just spurs us on.

2. It creates accountability

As you bear witness to your progress day by day—and how you’ve continued to commit—it’s easier to keep at it.

It’s also easier to go back to it after a tiny break because you want to rest or because you’ve been otherwise occupied. In other words, you learn the concept of “committing to recommitting,” a secret in building new habits.

3. It creates space for reflection

Many of us collide around in life metaphorically, leaping from one activity to another. While some are ritualistic or essential, and others are obligatory such as our responsibilities, we also fill our days up with anything to distract ourselves.

As a result, time whizzes by without us knowing it. We forget to reflect and take stock.

The Jar of Awesome creates an important pause in our lives and can ground us away from our frazzled brains. Not only does it confer well-being, but reflective pauses also help us to make decisions from a calmer and wiser space. This also benefits our mental fitness and performance. In other words, this is spending time to buy exponentially more time and contentment.

4. It forces us to observe ourselves more mindfully

The concept of the Hawthorne effect suggests that when we observe our behaviors, we change how we act. This is also used as a reason for measuring ourselves when working toward a health goal or filming ourselves as we learn new fitness moves.

While over-observing can create a sense of self-consciousness that fosters anxiety, the Jar of Awesome doesn’t quite work that way. It’s really about helping us become more thoughtful about how we live our daily lives, and the decisions we make.

5. It fosters a sense of gratitude

“Thank you for showing up for me” is something I recommend my clients say to themselves after they’ve done something particularly courageous. For example, when someone who experiences panic attacks on a train makes an effort to confront their worst fears by getting on one, it is a big deal. And it’s a case of them showing up for themselves. After all, they could have chosen the old way—the easy way out, in the short run.

Thanking ourselves for showing up also empowers us to stop expecting someone else to save us and rather puts our lives in our own hands. And it’s a moment of profound gratitude we’re giving to ourselves, alongside the mental and emotional benefits.

The bottom line

Many of us think we need to wait for our mindset to change first before embarking on doing something different. Except that we can wait for the metaphorical ducks to be in a row or for the stars to be aligned, and yet mindset morphs don’t come by magically.

It’s doing that makes our mindsets—and how we see ourselves—change.

Or as I like to put it: Doing is believing.

If slow living isn’t your thing, try slower living.

Fall—a cascade of burnt orange leaves, cozy sweaters, and stews. Sounds like a beautiful image, alongside what people call “slow living,” or taking your time through life, never rushing, and simply being.

But what if you have a demanding job and plenty of responsibilities? You might scorn slow living as mere fantasy. And then, what if you are Type A and/or highly impatient, like me? I was raised in one of the most competitive cultures in the world, and then I also was born with a natural propensity for overachievement. My head has always protested against slow living as “not for me!”

Until I realized, I have always been doing it in some sense. And as my life and vision evolved, I have been actively using slower living to benefit myself—and my work, too.

Why some people struggle with ‘slowing down’

Slowing down can feel difficult for so many people because they struggle with creating the time, energy, and headspace for it. And when they do? The next objection is something like: “But I don’t know how to slow down. What do I do on my breaks? Work more?”

It’s really about rejiggering your pace in some parts of your life and adding some more color, purpose, and joy into it. Because life isn’t just about the work you do—you are more than that.

One issue is that slow living has been lumped into an amorphous mass with plenty of dangerous platitudes. These include “just let go of everything,” which involves a lot of cognitive Photoshop and lying to yourself; “you don’t need to control anything,” which is impossible when you have responsibilities, old trauma, or leadership roles; or “be chill, don’t be difficult,” which is challenging when you’re expected to forgive blatant rudeness or shoddy incompetence.

News flash: You don’t need to do any of that, and that’s not the only way slower living can look. It can also look like spending more time doing the things you love or reconnecting with the things you’ve dropped as life’s obligations have piled up. Even if you call that weekly hike, that fortnightly focaccia baking stint, or monthly get-together with friends an “exercise to get out of my head,” “experimentation,” and “socializing,” if you feel recharged after that and love how the time just flies by in a good way, then you’re already doing some version of slower living. You just gotta do it more intentionally this time. After all, you already know how good you feel after that.

How to embrace slower living:

1. Consider what you already love doing

There are the things we’ve always loved doing, where time just flies by, and we’re completely wrapped up in it. We feel energized, purposeful, and content after that—and it definitely doesn’t feel like a waste of time, or as though life was dragging by.

Perhaps these are things you used to enjoy but have become disconnected from as obligations and life piled up.

So a good prompt would be, what did you love doing as a child?

It could be a similar activity, like running or reading. Or it could be something that you can evolve to fit who you are now. For instance, if you enjoyed collecting cards or stamps, and researching information about cars or plants, then you could apply this methodical and knowledge-hungry mind to the things you’re presently curious about.

And then, think about the things you already do that feel good but have you uttering I wish I could do this longer, if only I had more time.

Maybe some of these activities have an annoying energy-sapping component. For instance, someone might love to entertain but hate cleaning up. Another might feel that burdensome ache on their shoulders literally at the thought of having to coordinate the time when everyone is available. If this is the case, can you outsource the annoying task?

2. Try seasonal slower living

Nature’s wisdom is that we start to slow down during fall, resting in the winter, while we start to feel reinvigorated during spring, crescendoing in the summer. It makes sense, then, that we can plan bouts of slower living accordingly.

Another way is to book in designated vacation/break slots in your calendar, so you know you have that much-needed recharge. (Of course, it’s also about learning to practice taking care of your brain all year round so that when you’re on break, you’re not spending your time worrying and lost in your head.)

Defining slower living seasons could also come in the form of “peak time” and “coasting time”—this way, we get clear on when resting or going with the flow is perfectly beneficial and build up our reserves for the time when we need to go full steam ahead.

3. Master your time

If you took a short five-minute break every half an hour, a three-hour drive could easily morph to five hours. This is because five minutes isn’t just five minutes; it’s the breaking of momentum and then having to restart that. In the same way, switching between too many tasks and locations is an invisible way you haemorrhage your time.

One way to get around this is to chunk similar types of tasks or activities together—with tiny breaks in between, of course. You will reclaim so much time back, meaning you’ll be able to indulge in your favorite activities for longer.

Another question you can ask yourself is what are your time “black holes,” when they’re likely to happen, and what are the knock-on consequences? For instance, strategizing about work after dinner at 10 p.m. means you’ll sleep at 2 a.m. and then miss out on your morning workout. Which will lead you to feel disappointed and anxious all day, and the cycle repeats. The 8 p.m. Netflix binge might lead to the same vicious cycle.

This doesn’t mean “stop strategizing” or “stop Netflixing,” but it’s about building those activities into more conducive time slots during the day to better master your time.

4. Recognise the difference between excellence and imaginary unproductive perfectionism

I remember having a conversation with an incredibly gifted web developer, furious about how clean and beautiful the code he wrote was, as compared to his competitors’. Visually, it was a work of art, but most people, we don’t even know how to access code, much less care about it.

I tell this story because there comes a point where “even better” has a disproportionately large cost on your energy, time, and peace of mind. Even more so when only you can see and care about the better version. While it’s important to aspire to excellence in some parts of our lives, when perfectionism spills over to all parts of our lives, it shoots you in the foot.

As it is, we only have 24 hours in a day and about four hours of peak productive time. When we overtax ourselves, every day we run on reserve battery mode. Accumulate this, and it’s compound interest on sleep, energy, and health debt that you don’t want to pay.

Something’s gotta give. When you’re frantically trying to meet impossible standards in everything, you won’t have that focus and zest for creating excellence in the parts of your life that matter. Everything suffers. And the people you wanted to make happy by being perfect (e.g., by overgiving or fussing over details) end up unhappy.

That’s unproductive imaginary perfectionism because, in practice, nothing ends up perfect. In contrast, when we learn to streamline our standards for most areas of our lives, we can then be artisanal in what matters.

So let’s get realistic. Which areas of your life would you like to create “good enough” standards, and then which one to two areas would you like to be artisanal in? When you can renegotiate this distinction, you can make more space in your life for those periods of slowness.

5. Use slower living as a reset

For some, it can be helpful to essentially “microdose” slower living in our everyday lives.

Here’s when slower living takes the form of that reset button, important especially when we feel our energy has (naturally) been drained from prolonged focus. Hitting that reset button helps us get our higher brain online, reclaiming control from the inevitable hijack by our fear centers. We respond to what’s going on around us, rather than react. We’re able to look beyond the short term and make wiser decisions that benefit our future while taking care of ourselves in the present moment.

That reset is essentially what I call “spending time to buy time.”

In between tasks, it could be instituting 10-minute windows, deep breathing, or walking to brew a cup of tea. That way, you are literally showing your brain and body that you are transitioning between tasks or people so you clear off the energetic debris of the last thing you did and go forward with a cleaner slate.

Longer breaks can mean a short 10-minute walk after lunch, which also does wonders for your gut; that short stroll to the café to grab your favorite espresso; or a 30-minute workout class.

These daily resets might feel easier as you’re starting out on thoughtfully incorporating slower living into your life, or if you simply have a short attention span.

The bottom line

Many of us wait for a vacation before we decide to take it slower—and even then we become busy in our heads or filling up our days with activities.

The truth is, learning to take breaks takes practice. And it’s not just about learning to engage in slow living just because someone else says it’s good. It’s about having the space and time to engage fully with life and the people who matter while recharging you for all the work that you do.