Make it a (Good) Habit!

  • Published
  • By Lt. Col. Paul Birch
  • 4th Operations Support Squadron Commander
"Motivation is what gets you started. Habit is what keeps you going." ~Jim Ryun

We all need good habits to be successful in the Air Force--and in life. As members of the military, we strive for excellence in several different areas. We expect the people with whom we work to be experts at their jobs and demand the same from ourselves. Our profession values book learning and physical fitness. We also expect Airmen to develop and maintain a wide variety of special skills, everything from efficiently organizing daily tasks to writing with artistic flair to polished impromptu public speaking. In many ways, a good Airman is a true Renaissance man or woman.

We kid ourselves, however, if we think this level of performance is easy. The facets of the military ideal all have one thing in common: they are difficult to achieve; they require self-discipline. There are so many things to be good at, in fact, that it can become overwhelming if we try to consider them all at once. Who has time to master a difficult subject, become a good public speaker, reach a higher level of fitness, study professional military education materials, lead subordinates, and influence peers, all while working long hours and occasionally "surging" for exercises or real-world missions? Yet this is exactly what the Air Force asks of us.

But don't need to eat the elephant all at once! This tall order becomes possible if we build good habits one at a time, especially in those areas that aren't our natural strengths. Not confident about the PT test? Make daily workouts your habit--or simply drop for some push-ups every time you have a free minute. Struggle with your CDCs or master's classes? Become an academic who hits the books daily--carry your flash cards in your pocket. Dread public speaking? Address a group twice every week and get frank feedback from someone who can help you improve. Once you've tackled one area and routinely perform there, you can move on to other areas in which you seek improvement.

What's the key to success? A good wingman, naturally. There is nothing more difficult than forming a new habit, especially a good one. You need an accountability partner who will help you through the first few weeks of each journey, when it is easiest to talk yourself into quitting. Don't be afraid to look around, either. The person who is willing to meet you at the gym every afternoon may not be the one to coach you on making eye contact when you practice public speaking. Forming many new good habits takes the involvement of several role models and patient mentors. Luckily, Seymour Johnson is full of such people--I meet them every day.

Need another bit of motivation to work on developing new good habits today? Failing to work on building more good habits implies that one is accepting more bad habits. Since an Air Force career only gets busier for all of us as we move through it, we become more dependent on habits. Feodor Dostoevsky wrote, "The second half of a man's life is made up of nothing but the habits he has acquired during the first half." This is compelling. If we don't deliberately build a good habit covering each area of our life, we'll unintentionally occupy that space with a habit that drags us down over time. Confucius also weighed in on this topic, "Men's natures are alike; it is their habits that separate them." The knowledge that our habits will shape the latter part of our lives is a wake-up call for us all about areas in which we can do better.

Please view your time in the Air Force as a big opportunity: we are all faced with several areas in which we can improve. If we accept these challenges, we have role models and resources around us who will help us along the way. For every obstacle we overcome, our effectiveness increases; we are better able to tackle a wider array of projects and problems. Jumping over ever-increasing hurdles by deliberately building good habits pays dividends now and later. Building good habits is itself perhaps the best habit one can have. I hope you'll consider how you can add a few more to your repertoire!

The chains of habit are generally too small to be felt until they are too strong to be broken. ~Samuel Johnson