The Forgotten Element of Self-Improvement: Getting in the Groove
How cultivating daily rhythms and cycles can create unstoppable momentum in your life
“How we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives.” — Annie Dillard
The self-improvement landscape is dominated by the idea of getting from A to B, where A is the unsatisfying situation you find yourself in now, and B is your dream destination — career success, a loving relationship, and all the rest.
How do you get from A to B? Set some goals, of course! Make sure to set the right goals, establish a routine, work on creating healthy habits, and adopt a positive mindset. Boom! Happiness and success will be yours.
Not quite. Although this linear way of thinking about self-improvement makes logical sense, it’s just not how humans are wired. Perhaps most importantly, you do not live your life in a linear fashion, going straightforwardly from A to B. Instead, much of your life is cyclical in nature: you wake up, do some work, do something else, go to sleep, and repeat. Over and over.
Goals help you plan your progress, but they do nothing to help you actually make progress. That’s where your daily rhythms and cycles come in.
It’s the reason why people make such a big thing out of their morning routine. Get the beginning of your daily cycle right and you’ll be off to a good start. But then what? It’s amazing how so much is made out of the beginning of people’s daily cycle and rhythm, but so little about everything that comes afterward.
When you cultivate daily cycles and rhythms that work for you—throughout your whole day—you get into the groove of your own life. Goals will no longer become your primary focus, as you’ll increasingly spend your days in more worthwhile ways. The momentum this creates in your life is unstoppable.
Getting in the groove vs cultivating habits
You might be asking yourself, isn’t getting in the groove just having healthy habits? That’s part of it, but the trick is to not cultivate habits in isolation.
The power of habits is they work relatively effortlessly and automatically. You don’t have to think too hard about how to get from your bedroom to the kitchen because doing so has become totally habitual. Instead, you can spend the time thinking about whether there’s any food in the fridge.
In contrast, when you have to work against the grain of your habits, it can be excruciating — constantly forcing yourself to not eat junk food when you’re tired, to not check social media when bored at work, and so on. You have limited willpower to fight your ingrained habitual responses, and if you continue to do so throughout your day, you’ll eventually lose out.
But this understanding of habits can only get us so far. In his book, The Power of Habits, Charles Duhigg explores the neuroscience of habits and breaks them down into 3 parts: 1) cue, 2) behaviour, and 3) reward. Your habitual behaviour might be eating junk food. But the cue that makes you want to eat junk food might be tiredness or boredom. And the reward of eating junk food might not just be a burst of energy, but also a form of comfort or socialising.
The problem with this way of thinking about habits is it assumes you live in a kind of temporal vacuum, just waiting for a habitual cue to come your way. Human beings aren’t like that. Instead, we’re all deeply embedded in cycles of time that define our day-to-day lives.
You don’t just wait to get tired or bored and then want to eat junk food. Most likely, you get tired around the same time each day, or just after over-exerting yourself, or after another bad night’s sleep. Or you get bored whenever you do tasks that aren’t that important but feel a pressure to do anyway.
You can recognise these daily cycles and rhythms and start to change them. Because they will happen, day in, day out, if you do nothing.
Establishing an effective morning routine is part of this picture: starting your day well, building that momentum. So is discovering when you tend to be most productive, and doing what’s most important during those time periods. But there is so much more you can do to get in the groove of your day.
Going beyond your morning routine
Instead of seeing your habits in isolation — “I wish I didn’t eat so much junk food”, “I want to exercise more”, “I want to use social media less”—start to see your thoughts, feelings, and behaviours within the context of your day.
When do you eat junk food, or go on social media, and why? What would be the best time to exercise? — don’t just assume that if you create a goal, you’ll always be motivated to do it and have time to fit it into your schedule.
Personally, I used to try and create habits that were completely incongruent with my daily cycles and rhythms, only to wonder what was wrong with me when I failed to stick to my 30-day-challenges and other best-laid plans.
I’d always assume that I’d get up earlier than I realistically would, not recognising just how important getting a good night’s sleep was to me, or how much I valued spending time in the evening relaxing or socialising.
I’d assume that I could always fit more into my schedule, failing to acknowledge that each one of my work tasks would potentially take longer than I thought, which, put together, meant little time to do anything else.
I’d assume that I’d spend my leisure time doing even more productive things, including cooking healthy and delicious food, not taking seriously the fact that my energy levels were always lower at the end of the day.
Things started to change for me when I stopped trying to cultivate habits in isolation and started thinking about the daily cycles that made up my life. Instead of a constant battle of willpower, I began to find my daily groove.
Why getting in the groove works
The reason your daily cycles and rhythms are way more powerful than your goals and intentions is they repeat themselves: over and over again.
James Clear, in his book Atomic Habits, refers to daily cycles as systems. If you’re a writer, your goal is to write a book, but your system is the writing schedule you follow each week. If you’re a runner, your goal is to run a marathon, but your system is your training schedule for the month.
Whereas your goal has a clear, and relatively immediate, endpoint, your system to achieve that goal is potentially endless. After having written a book, or after having run a marathon, you could keep up the same writing or training schedule and write another book, or run another marathon.
The advantage of having a system that repeats itself over and over again is you can harness the power of iteration. It’s tempting to think we know exactly how to get from A to B. But, in reality, things are always more complicated and uncertain. Getting successfully from A to B is likely to require a lot of trial and error — making mistakes, learning from them, continuously adapting.
The power of iteration is bread and butter for tech start-ups, engineering companies, or other kinds of entrepreneurial activities where you just don’t know how things are going to go. It’s why the best thing to do when you’re starting out as a writer is to simply produce some work and publish it. That way, you get feedback and learn how to do things better next time.
Your daily cycles and rhythms allow for iteration because they repeat themselves over and over again. You can make a tweak to your morning routine and see how it plays out over the next few days. It might go badly, but that’s okay. You can then make a different tweak and see how that goes.
Not only does this strategy of iteration mean you don’t waste too much time going down dead ends, it also means you’re more likely to strike gold. According to the well-known 80/20 rule, 80% of a company’s results tend to come from 20% of their activities. The same is often true for individuals. Most of what you do isn’t that useful. But some of what you do is golden. The hard part is finding your 20%. That can only be done through constant iterating.
Creating an unstoppable momentum
This focus on the iteration of your daily cycles and rhythms is crucial. Instead of entirely changing your circumstances or cultivating brand new habits, you just need to make one small change at a time. As James Clear notes, if you improve 1% every day for 1 year, you improve overall by 38 times. That’s the power of iteration and repetition. That’s why daily cycles are so important.
The more you get into the groove of your daily life, the more you’ll find yourself naturally cultivating the habits that work for you and your schedule. You’ll feel good on a daily basis, knowing you’re making steady progress towards your goals, and getting more and more competent along the way. The wheels are now in motion as your life starts to gain momentum.
Perhaps most importantly, you might never stop. Getting into the groove of your daily life can be addictive. As well as taking you steadily along the path to achieving your goals, the journey itself can become rewarding. You can always make another tweak to your daily cycle, becoming ever more competent at what you do, greasing those wheels of progress.
This intrinsic motivation matters most when you dream big — when your goals are ambitious and their achievement is potentially far away. Somewhat paradoxically, the more long-term your goals are, the more important it is to focus on your days — your short-term cycles and rhythms. Otherwise, you’re at greater risk of losing hope, your will and motivation, and giving up. The further away from your destination, the more important the journey.
Summary — Getting in the groove, and why it works
The self-improvement landscape is dominated by the idea of setting goals to get from A to B. But goals only help you plan your progress. It’s your daily cycles and rhythms that help you actually make progress.
Instead of cultivating habits in isolation, getting in the groove is about changing your habits within the context of your daily rhythms — What do you have time and energy for? What can you do reliably every day?
Getting in the groove works because it harnesses the power of iteration — making small, incremental changes to your day, quickly learning from your mistakes, and repeating the positive changes consistently over time.
Over time, the more you get into your groove, the more competent you feel about what you do, and the more progress you make towards your goals.
The momentum this creates in your life can be unstoppable. This is especially important when it comes to your ambitious, long-term goals. The further away from your destination, the more important the journey.