How habits earn you compound interest

Starting habits is hard and following through on them difficult as well. One thought that gets in the way is that the habit itself is useless and the rewards are too meager to matter. This ignores a basic property of habits which is that they can have a cumulative effect. Starting habits is just like starting a savings account.

Like Money in The Bank

Saving money is most useful because it can earn compound interest so that the amount accrued over time is much greater than the sum of the amounts at the time of deposit. This fact is not intuitive and frankly I couldn’t tell you exactly how much my savings are going to be worth several years from now. Still, the principle of compound interest is one that many of us have been taught and so we trust that saving money has greater worth than the immediate sacrifice necessary to do so.

Habits are the same way. Let’s say you were to start a habit of running for thirty minutes a day. The first week of running is going to be difficult and uncomfortable. As you continue running becomes easier, you can run further and the benefits begin to clearly outweigh the cost. Even though you may be putting in the same time for every run, the process at the end of a year feels very different than it did at the start. That’s because, like money in a savings account, the benefits of exercise accrue over time.

The Power of the Unpredictable

There is one important way that positive habits are different than money saved: money in a savings account increases in a mathematically predictable way once you know the interest that the account produces. The benefits of positive habits accrue in often unpredictable ways; this is their greatest power as well as part of the difficulty of forming positive habits.

When I was 25 years old I took up the guitar. A roommate of mine had moved out but left his guitar behind and I had a friend teach me some chords. I practiced every day, until picking up the instrument became a habit that was difficult to shake. I had no ambitions as a guitar player but the more I played the better I got and the more I enjoyed it. A couple of years later I had the opportunity to play as part of a student theater project and so polished my playing for those performances. A few years after that I was out of work and got a job taking over as musical accompaniment for a touring theatre company. Getting paid to play music is one of the best jobs I ever had.

When I started playing guitar I had no idea that it would lead to a paying gig or a stint with a band that I joined after that. Habits can be opportunities, and like most opportunities it’s impossible to know where they will take you. So don’t put off forming positive habits because they are difficult today; think about the what a new habit might make possible tomorrow.

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