Julien Smith 18 min read

How to Change Your Life: An Epic, 5,000-Word Guide to Getting What You Want

Self Improvement fear habits

5000 word guide to changing your life
5000 word guide to changing your life

Everybody talks about it. Nobody does it.

If I’ve learned anything by my age, it’s that most of the world, myself included, is composed of talkers, not doers.

There are very few exceptions to this rule. The good news is, you can be a doer if you want.

The ability to act is not something you’re born with. Change is a skill you can learn—as long as you have the guts to actually do it.

I’ve changed myself a lot, but it’s not because I’m special. I just created special circumstances. Whatever you want is usually easier to get than you think, as long as you are willing to adapt and do what is necessary.

Now, most posts of this nature will give you little tips, maybe even 100 tips, in the hope that you’ll be impressed by how large the list is and just tweet the hell out of it. They do this because it works (my last one is currently getting 40,000 visits a day from Stumbleupon actually), but writing of that type also usually appeals to those who want simple answers, and that’s not what I’m interested in right now.

So I’ve decided to make this post ridiculously long instead. It weighs in at almost 5,000 words. You may want to go make some coffee.

By the way, I’m also going to say that I’m not going to be writing about this stuff for much longer. I’m starting to get referred to as a “self-help” guru, and, honestly, I don’t like it at all. I also began to realize that once you start to talk about success, instead of becoming more successful, you become more of a talker, and not a doer, which is counter to what I’m trying to do in life.

I’m starting to figure out that the way your time should be spent is largely like a pyramid, with a wide base of learning, with a smaller level of acting on top of it, which is directed by the learning, and then on top of that, an even smaller level of writing about it. If you build your life differently in a structure antithetical to a pyramid’s structure, it becomes unbalanced and topples over. But that’s another subject entirely.

Anyway, the point is, I can’t just snap my fingers and change you—nor would I want to if I could. But what I can do is give you a real primer on how change is done. This would be the learning part, as said above, but then you’ll need to go ahead and act for any change to occur. So I added in homework assignments. As long as you know this, and you’re willing to actually do them, then we can go forward.

Take the following as one guy’s experience, along with the proverbial grain of salt.

1. How to break bad patterns

The human brain is a complex pattern-recognition system that, at one point, was largely there to help you survive and reproduce. Patterns were recognized to help you react to a new stimulus, which kept you alive long enough to have as many kids as possible (after which, you could basically die as far as your genes were concerned).

The problem is, that’s no longer our biggest priority, at least as far as the conscious mind is concerned. Now we want to write books, and we want six-pack abs with only 4 hours of gym time, blah blah. We want to know ten languages and have a gorgeous, smart and successful significant other, etc., etc. Oh yeah, and we want to be happy.

The problem is that our brain is still largely designed to keep you alive until puberty, and then, when that moment happens you’re like “I’m a man” or whatever, and then your brain’s job switches to get you to reproduce as often as possible, doing your part in the long-standing, subconscious war to stay in the gene pool.

In other words, your conscious brain is trying to do one thing, while the rest of your brain is trying to do another. Our brain is now maladapted to our goals, and its patterns are hard to break because, 100,000 years ago, learning about the world meant just surviving, which was fairly easy, and once that was under control, you could stop learning entirely because the forest you lived in wasn’t going to be changing anytime soon.

Read this: How to Give Your 200,000 Year Old Brain a Software Update

Now, our world is changing all the time, and in order to change ourselves, we need to ease into and embrace the coming chaos. Those that are most comfortable with change for change’s sake will adapt better to the future, and you can only get good at change by trying to do it, in small ways, on purpose.

In other words, you have to try and break your patterns and build new habits around them, constantly, because that’s how the modern world works. You also have to gather infrastructure around you that helps you do this, because your brain is simply not built for it.

This, by the way, is central to my thinking about challenge, and how your reactions to any bet or dare will shape your future. You need to get good at challenges—in other words, at reacting to unexpected stimulus—if you are going to be capable of change.

Read this: 30 Challenges for 30 Days

Now, I know that some people would say that people’s problem with change is fear, but I don’t actually think that’s true, on a conscious level. I think most people’s primary problems is that they literally forget to keep doing the thing they wanted to do. “Dammit,” they think, “I wanted to write today. I forgot. Oh well, tomorrow’s another day.” And then they forget tomorrow and the day after, and it’s all shot to hell until next New Year’s. Don’t pretend you don’t know what I’m talking about.

So while fear is a problem, building a habit of doing things that need to be done, whether you like them or not, is often a good first step. Let’s start by listing some ways to do that.

Find the moment where you have the most energy. For me, this is usually early in the morning. I have a dog, so I may walk him, or my girlfriend may, but I keep all the lights turned off, launch Freedom on my computer (as it is on right now) and then write for one hour. I have no goal but to sit down and do it. This takes the pressure off. I know that if I don’t do it before I do anything else, it just doesn’t happen. I learned this the hard way.

Do the hardest things first. The way life works is that easy things will get done anyway. You look at your list of stuff and think, “what is going to be the most difficult thing to do?” If you work on this one first, you’ll discover that your day will get easier, and the rewards will get better as time goes on. So the first thing is hard, but next is easier, and then easier still, and so on until you have the most fun doing the easiest things on your task list.

Have a list of 5 things you want to do, maximum. Don’t start with 5 world-changing acts, though. Begin with one and do it for as little time as you can so it gets done. I know that Zenhabits recommends you start with 5 minutes a day, but I’ll often start with 15- or 30-minute chunks. It’s how I started drawing again, 10 years after dropping out of art school.

The goal is not to succeed. It is just to sit and do it. As I’ve said before, ugly is just a step on the way to beautiful. If you sit down and expect anything, you will freeze up. So just sit down with no expectations. Like the gym—the goal is just to go and do your best, not to deadlift 500 pounds, but to lift just a little more than last time. And even if you failed at that, it’s fine, because you’ll be doing it again next week. No rush. Just sit down and begin.

Homework assignment 1.

I know you guys like homework, so here’s something for you to do right now. List the 5 most important things you can do to improve your day. Then, place them in order of difficulty, starting with the hardest. Next, set your alarm right now at one hour earlier than you’re used to waking up, and begin tomorrow morning with the hardest task you have.


2. How to get back up again

While you are building habits, it is 100% certain that you will be failing, not just a few times, but often. This is because you’re doing new things, and new things are by definition hard to do.

But the point is never to look back at failures and even not to sulk in current ones, but to say “I’m going to start again right now.” In other words, it’s not about this current attempt and its success and failure. It’s about the process of doing it again no matter how horrible the previous attempt was.

I’m sure you know from experience that one of the most difficult things to deal with when making new habits is the realization that you have screwed up. A few days ago I was going out for a friend’s birthday, and I was thinking, “Ok, well I only have one more thing to do. I still have time though, I’ll do it later.” God, it’s amazing how often I still believe my own bullshit.

I know that, some people seem to think that I am some paragon of industriousness. This is so far from the truth that it’s laughable. I’m actually one of the laziest people I know. I have the most excuses, among the most horrible habits of anyone I know, and I am sure that, in an alternate universe somewhere, I am either homeless, a janitor, or dead. I am not exaggerating. That I’ve gotten through all this is somewhat of a miracle.

I say this because I want you to know that I am not unlike you, and that you are not alone in your horribleness. We’re pretty much the same, I just happen to be observant enough to have learned a few lessons. One of the big ones is that I am no longer as concerned with failure.

The only real difference between you, the one that does nothing, and you the super successful multi-millionaire, is that the other guy gets up over and over again, like a boxer in the ring that needs to win the fight.

Read this: How to Overcome Perfectionism

In life, you can just get knocked down and stay down forever with no real impending deadline. In sport, you can’t. There is a timer, and you can hear it as you are failing, and the only option is to get back up. Since life does not work this way, I have taken an alternate stance, which is that no one is watching or even gives a damn. My failure is inconsequential and silent, so I can fail over and over again in my little cave while no one is watching, and then as I get better, I can get more public about my efforts and do better.

Produce horrible material on purpose. Whatever your work is, perfectionism is a killer. You just sit there thinking “I’m horrible at this,” totally paralyzed, unable to continue. *****

Give yourself several chances in a day. I read the book 18 Minutes earlier this year and it gave me a great tip to help me get up over and over again. I set up a timer now using the RE.minder app for iPhone that pings me once an hour to ask “Are you being productive?”

Realize that there are no consequences. Almost everything that sucks stays in the draft stage anyway, and the stuff that doesn’t (and is public) has almost no social consequences at all. I have a friend who’s one of those dating coaches, and he always says that the perceived social consequences of talking to strangers is always WAY worse than actually doing it. Whatever errors we make are diluted into the fabric of society, so the larger the fabric is, the smaller the error seems.

Homework assignment 2.

Carry around a smartphone or alarm, that reminds you every hour (9 to 5) to get your ass back to work. Sit down first thing in the morning and write, draw, go to the gym, or create something, no matter how bad the result is. Do it for a given time period, begin before you stress out about it, and continue until the anxiety has subsided.


3. How to handle fear

Ok, we’ve gotten past the basic stuff.

You’ll notice so far that what we’ve been talking about is largely an issue of philosophy. The first assumption is something along the lines of: “You are naturally weak. If you want to become strong, use society’s infrastructures and your own willpower to strengthen the structure around you.”

The second conclusion you come to is: “If you fall, the environment you fall into is safer than it has ever been. If life was at one point nasty, brutish, and short, it is now long, diplomatic, and peaceful. Failing is therefore easier. So is getting back up.”

If you follow these, the next conclusion must therefore become “I have a structure around me to make things easier than they’ve ever been. And even when they are hard and I fail, nothing much happens. So there is really no reason for me to be afraid at all.”

I’ve actually written a whole book about this (that you can download on Kindle!) so I won’t elaborate, but one reason that many people can’t change is because they simply can’t handle the flinch—a reflexive almost physiological response to exiting the safe zone. This may happen even though they know, consciously, that their safe zone is huge. In this case, it’s not the conscious mind that matters. It’s the emotional one.

(Expert meditators are able to avoid the flinch, you can read more about that in this fantastic article on the benefits of meditation.)

So you have to start convincing your emotional brain that beating the flinch is no big deal, and you can only really do this by having visited the other side. In other words, the intellectual part of the equation will only get you so far.

You can’t just think it. You need to feel it.

How do you do this? Each person’s methods will differ. I can tell you that having epileptic seizures, getting tattooed, pierced, and branded over and over again from the age of 18 until now (32), helped a lot. I can tell you that learning to talk to strangers helped a lot, as does (badly planned) travel, which helps me deal with unexpected circumstances as they arise. The more you leap into the unknown, the more you discover that the unexpected is rarely something you need to actually worry about. You ease into surprises and learn to deal with them as they come instead of reflexively avoiding them.

As you discover this, you’ll see that it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy, a virtuous circle that builds confidence upon confidence in layers, like armour or calluses.

But each type of armour is actually quite specific. You don’t lose your fear of getting jumped unless you prepare for getting jumped beforehand, and you don’t lose social anxiety unless someone teaches you what to do, and what not to do (which you can find out in this article).

So losing the flinch isn’t just about jumping into the unknown; it’s also about learning what technique works in the new environment you’re leaping into. Swimming helps you deal with being in the water, but nowhere else, while fighting helps you learn to deal with fights, etc.

Write down the worst case scenario. I picked this one up from Tim Ferriss (see his amazing productivity book The Four Hour Workweek here). While you’re in a safe place (i.e. not under pressure), look at what’s going to happen and ask yourself what the worst possible conclusion is. You ask someone out, they say no, or worse, maybe they laugh. You’re embarrassed, and in a few days you’re over it and laughing with your buddies. Or, you ask for a raise and your boss says no.

Recognize that pain evaporates quickly. The brain is wired to associate pain with death. Most pain, however, is insignificant and doesn’t last—either it vanishes quickly or, in the off chance where it’s longer-lasting, it’s dull and can easily be ignored. Realize that pain is a temporary, vestigial reaction created by evolution in an environment where a single scrape could mean death by infection. Then recognize that we have antibiotics and move forward anyway.

Deal with discomfort as it comes; don’t predict it. As I write this I have turned my internet connection off with an app called Freedom. I do this because it makes me more productive, but I also notice that being disconnected from the web feels awkward, and it makes me way more nervous than I should. I keep thinking “when is my hour up,” or “I’ll just check my phone,” etc., because this process of writing for one hour (minimum) per day leaves me struggling to find things to talk about. But it also means that I’m getting better at discomfort, every day, the same way you adjust to a cold shower after a few seconds of being in the water. And as the hour finishes, I can feel myself internally saying “thank God it’s over.” Now think about this: if I can’t deal with that tiny discomfort, how will I deal with anything else that happens out in the real world?

Homework assignment 3.

Find several daily practices that makes you uncomfortable. Go to the gym and put yourself (safely) under as much weight as possible. Meditate every day for as long as you can stand it—no email, no phone, no clock—until your alarm says you can get up. Start with ten minutes and do it right after your biggest task of the day (as discussed above).


4. Raise all hurdles

I’m going to guess that, in your social circle, you don’t have that many people you hang out with that make you feel like utter, worthless garbage. I don’t mean a psychotic ex or something, I mean someone that is working harder than you, has more money than you, is happier and better with people than you, all that stuff.

A lot of change has to do with watching your blind spots. Returning to old habits is easy when you have no one watching you, calling you on your bullshit when you fall back into your old ways of thinking. You need someone, or many people, who’ll call you on it, who will tell you the truth when you need to hear it. If this is someone you hire, that’s fine, and if it’s someone close to you, like your spouse or friend, that’s fine too. But they have to be able to both tell you the truth, help you raise the bar, and be in your corner at the same time. This is not an easy person to find.

About a month ago my friend Mitch and I got together for sushi. He told me that it’s rare, for people at his level (and mine) to have someone call him out, to tell him he’s wrong. I feel the same way. People around you don’t want to rock the boat, but if you’re like me, you’re surrounded by supporters and no one is telling you you’re not good enough—which is actually what you want to hear. This, by the way, is why I love that I’m going to TED this month. Simply put, I know that five days of feeling like garbage about my accomplishments will do wonders for me.

Anyway, the point of this was that, the day after I called him on his BS, as he had asked, he produced a 15,000-word book proposal. It was almost instantly sold to Hachette by our agent and became this book (4.5 out of 5 on Amazon).

So the question is, what would it take for you to produce that much amazing material, that fast?

Stay in over your head at all times. If you’ve ever wondered why my personal blog has the name that it does, you now have your answer. “In over your head” should be the state you are always reaching towards—not knowing entirely what you’re doing, having taken on too much, being too ambitious because you’ve made ridiculous promises, etc. All these things are good because they will make you extremely resourceful. You need to find ways to over-promise so that you begin to freak out, at least a little.

Have regular meetings with people way above your level. I just got introduced to Paulo Coelho via my co-author Chris Brogan. I love his work, as many do, but unfortunately doesn’t make me feel like garbage because he is so above my level that I can’t even relate to his experience and success. So while I’m extremely pleased to be speaking to him (stay tuned for that), in terms of raising the bar, it doesn’t quite cut it.

What you need are people that are close enough to your level, in age, intelligence, and resources, but who have done much more with them. When I remember that Gary Vaynerchuk is only 35, for example, now that makes me feel like garbage. When Mitch gets more speaking engagements than I do, same thing. When Greg is flying to New York (again) to meet high-up VCs to get his company sold, and I suddenly remember that he’s fucking 23 years old, that makes me feel like garbage. So find people like this. Buy them lunch if you have to, whatever it takes.

Incidentally, I’d like to mention that accomplishments alone can’t carry you. After a while, I have a feeling you’ll get burned out on them—that the bar will get raised so high, and you’ll have done so much, that you simply don’t care anymore and just want to produce good work. That is a good thing, of course, and you shouldn’t just be driven by accomplishments, but it genuinely does help me, so that’s why I’m telling you that.

Expose yourself to ideas you don’t understand. People often write or produce ideas and then don’t draw them to their logical conclusion. You can often see people trying to emulate the Seth Godin style of post, for example, because they think that style works since he’s the most popular marketing blogger, etc. But the reality is that these people are having simple ideas, writing them down and going “Wow! I’m done,” when, in fact, they’ve just begun.

Ryan Holiday wrote a post a while ago which is relevant here (see How to digest books above your level). This is important because pushing things past their usual end point is the only way you will ever come across conclusions that others haven’t yet had. Last week, I spoke to Gad Saad, who basically invented evolutionary psychology as it relates to consumer behavior, by combining ideas that had been discussed elsewhere but had simply not been put together before. His work is considered a breakthrough in the understanding of how human beings make buying decisions.

Homework assignment 4.

Start reading more. Read biographies of people you have heard of and respect—not necessarily Nobel laureates or geniuses, but people who are like you that you respect. If you’re from Iowa, pick someone else from Iowa. If you’re a web entrepreneur, find people at your level but that have done more with it.

Here are a few lists to help you with your reading:

Discover Expertly-Curated Books on Personal Development at the Stairway to Wisdom

How to Read a Book a Week For the Last 5 Years (my article).

174 Pearls of Wisdom I Gleaned From Reading 174 Books (my Article)

25 Self-Development Books Your MUST Read Before You Die (High Existence Classic Article)


5. Change is cyclical

We’ve come almost full circle at this point. You’ll notice that once your bars get raised, and you can build habits that help construct new skill sets to help you reach them, you will continue to expand your horizons exponentially compared to where they were used to.

I wrote this post, by the way, by using the exact set of things I wrote about here. I could not have written 5,000 words about this without having a daily writing habit. I could not have finished it without being okay with seeing this post fall flat (which it might). I’m ok with it falling flat because I have seen posts I have worked hard on fall flat before, and besides a little disappointment, I did not die… I was fine.

But you can definitely see the process, now, of how normal people become extraordinary just through changing their behavior alone. Then, after behavior changes, the mind usually changes with it, leading to more confidence, which expands your reach even further, etc., all in a giant cycle.

The sad part about all this is that some people simply are not willing to put themselves inside the system to make it happen. Most people feel as if they are doing it, but they often are not. What they really need to be doing is stop listening to themselves as if they knew what was best for them. The reality is, they don’t. Only when you recognize this can you make change happen.


Ok, this is all fine and good, but the final question is, what should you really be changing towards? Maybe you’re not happy with where you are, and you want to go somewhere else, but why do you even want to go there? What’s the goal, and will you be happier when you get there? You don’t know, so you may not want to change.

I suspect that the real answer to this is that it simply does not matter where you go. Remember, you’re not looking to be perfect. You’re only looking for a small improvement over your current state, and as long as you’re okay with fumbling on your way there, you should just start moving immediately and deal with the decisions as they come.

With that in mind, I should say that I really don’t know how to finish this post. It’s by far the largest I’ve ever written, practically like a mini-book, and I’d just like to finish it so I can go ahead with my drawing, cleaning out my inbox, and everything else I need to do today before I can go out and see my friend Justin without any guilt on my mind.

So thank you very much for reading all the way through. I hope this helps. Please leave me a comment if you have any questions and I’ll do my best to them.

This post was written by Julien Smith, the CEO of Breather.

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