How You Do Anything is How You Do Everything

There is a quote attributed to Aristotle that is very popular in the online entrepreneur community lately.

“We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act, but a habit.”

(It is actually a quote from Will Durant in a 1926 book providing his own summary of Aristotle’s position, but it sounds more powerful coming from a father of western philosopher than from a 20th century writer that nobody knows.)

The quote is nice. It sounds important and stresses habit building. Cool.

But it never clicked with me.

I read and heard it for years, and every new occurrence I thought, “Oh, yeah,” and left mildly inspired for a few minutes.

Years later I came across a quote with a similar message that just clicked everything into place for me.

How you do anything is how you do everything.

We Fall to the Level of Our Training

When I was growing up, my dad was a coach on my hockey teams. One thing that he stressed was not coasting during practice. One thing that I often did was coast during practice.

Practices were long and tiring and, most importantly, they didn’t matter. If I half-assed a drill it didn’t affect our win/loss record. If I skipped out on going full speed for a while, it didn’t help an opponent.

My dad insisted that the way you play in practice was the way you would play in a game. Which I knew for sure at the time was nonsense. Games matter! Obviously I wouldn’t coast in a game. I wouldn’t half-ass a pass or a shot in a game.

Until I caught myself coasting in a game.

What the hell?! Why had my body betrayed me? Did I really just autopilot myself to mediocrity?

It was many years before I heard another quote from another ancient thinker that summed up my experience: We don’t rise to the level of our expectation; we fall to the level of our training.

It was true of the ancient Greek military, it is true of sports, and it is true of pretty much everything else.

How you do anything is how you do everything.

Deep Work and Focus

The book Deep Work by Cal Newport during a discussion on focus dives into a study on behavior in the digital age. The study establishes all of the problems that occur when people multitask, which is an all-too-common mistake that people make in the modern era.

“People who multitask all the time can’t filter out irrelevancy. They can’t manage a working memory. They’re chronically distracted. They initiate much larger parts of their brain that are irrelevant to the task at hand . . . they’re pretty much mental wrecks.”

What the experimenters found was that people knew this. But they explained that when they need to focus, they shut everything else out and focus.

The problem is that they were wrong.

Because they spent most of their time multi-tasking, they were unable to properly single-task when it was called for. They thought that they could just turn on the focus when it was show time, but they couldn’t.

How you do anything is how you do everything.

Everything Matters

If you want to be the type of person who is focused, you need to work to be that type of person all the time, not just when it feels like it matters. You want to avoid pulling out your phone when you are talking with loved ones, obviously, but then you should also try to avoid pulling out your phone when you are standing in line at the grocery store.

If you want to be the type of person who is nice to others, you need to be that type of person all the time. This is why in job interviews the hiring manager will want to see how you treat the receptionist.

If you want to be charitable when you have a lot of money, you need to be charitable when you have very little money.

It is time that we recognize that we are not as good at stepping up and being better for the things that matter. It is time that we recognize that everything matters.

It is time that we recognize that how we do anything is how we do everything.

26 thoughts on “How You Do Anything is How You Do Everything”

  1. Thanks for this reminder. It’s so hard to do deep work when we’re being pulled from so many different sides these days. I think it’s important to slow down and remember to do things with focus–even if it means you get less stuff done, it means the things you accomplished were quality.
    Mrs. Picky Pincher recently posted…What A Frugal Weekend!My Profile

  2. I like it, I rarely will pull out my phone in public because I like thinking to myself. I try to focus in on one task at a time. When I can’t, I do a little mediation or exercise (5 mins) and this seems to refocus me.

    Thanks for sharing Matt
    Erik @ The Mastermind Within recently posted…My Money StoryMy Profile

    1. That’s great! I have gotten to a point where I don’t pull out my phone when I am in a room with other people, but I am still sometimes guilty of checking twitter or email when I am on my own. I really like the idea of a short meditation reset. Especially where the goal of meditation is to catch your mind wandering and gently bring it back, it seems like a very appropriate way to step back from multi-tasking and regain your focus. I will have to give that a try.

      Thanks for the comment, Erik!
      Matt recently posted…How You Do Anything is How You Do EverythingMy Profile

  3. I love everything about this post, Matt! I’m reading Essentialism right now, so that’s helping me identify and eliminate the unimportant. I plan to read it again (which I rarely do). Deep Work is on my list- I think it will be a great follow up to Essentialism. Though I don’t tend to get too distracted by my phone, I am certainly a recovering multi-tasker.

    1. Thanks, Amanda! I actually have not gotten to Essentialism yet, but it is on my list! I also rarely re-read books, but Deep Work and Newport’s previous book So Good They Can’t Ignore You are ones that I flagged to come back to a year or two after the first reading. Everything in both of those books feels like common sense and yet life-changing at the same time.
      Matt recently posted…How You Do Anything is How You Do EverythingMy Profile

    1. I really like that quote. In So Good They Can’t Ignore You (which I coincidentally just mentioned in my response to Amanda’s comment above) Cal Newport talks about the practice habits of musicians. Virtuoso musicians are not just naturally better at music. The way they practice is fundamentally different from other musicians. They are on that perfect practice end of the spectrum and it really comes through on the stage.

      Thanks for the comment, Rob!
      Matt recently posted…How You Do Anything is How You Do EverythingMy Profile

  4. This is true when we’re tired or sick too. When we’re stressed, we turn on autopilot, so it’s good if that’s set at a sufficient level to keep life running smoothly.
    If we’re efficient and have good systems in place, we’ll have an easier time making it through the hard times.
    ChooseBetterLife recently posted…A Non-Milestone BirthdayMy Profile

    1. This is a really good point. I spent much of 2016 working to build better habits, and then hit a patch in early 2017 when I was low on sleep and high on stress. The habits that I had developed early in the year and had worked to cement stuck even when I went on autopilot, while the later, weaker habits fell off completely.

      Thanks for stopping by!
      Matt recently posted…How You Do Anything is How You Do EverythingMy Profile

  5. Fantastic post, Matt!

    I am an engineer. Years back, when I was designing motherboards, I would shut my office door, and work for days without disturbance until I finished my design and released it for fabrication. If I am passionate about something, I am laser focused on excellence.

    However, this level of focus and pursuit of excellence has not necessarily manifested in other things in my life.

    Michael recently posted…Passive Income Dividend InvestingMy Profile

  6. When I was reading this, I was reminded of Allen Iverson yelling at the media…”we’re talking about PRACTICE? Not a game?!” But you’re right and it’s something I struggle with. I often try to multi-task and have a difficult time focusing. Building good habits by consistently doing them day in and day out important…and something I need to work on.

    1. Ha! I actually was trying to work in an Allen Iverson reference, but it just felt too forced.

      I’m sure this is something that everyone struggles with to some extent. It’s very difficult to be “on” all the time. We just need to keep working towards getting better every day.

      Thanks for the comment, Andrew!
      Matt recently posted…How You Do Anything is How You Do EverythingMy Profile

  7. Hello Matt,

    Thanks a lot for reminding the secret of life in a beautiful sentence. I am with the point that focus is important in any task. But, all the time we could not maintain the focus on a constant thing and diversion is obvious for everyone, even me.
    But really there is a solution for getting back the focus which worked for me, Meditation. If you are not aware of correct meditation, I also suggest deep sleep is one of the best meditation when limited to shorter time. 🙂

  8. Whoa. I just stumbled on your blog. I am now laying face first in this post. As you mention in the comments, I have also allowed the busyness of multitasking to make me feel like a day was a success. I have been lying to myself, I was not productive in what mattered. I allowed fear to send me running to busyness.

    I am looking forward to reading more of your blog! (I might have to read Deep Work too) Thanks!

    – The Tepid Tamale

  9. Such a great reminder! I think consistency is key most anything we set out to do. It’s also important to realize that setbacks are part of life–not an excuse to give up.

    As far as multi-tasking, I’ve never been a fan. I actively work to perform one task at a time, and I’ve found this approach allows much more productivity!
    Willow @ Miter Saws and Mary Janes recently posted…How to Sell Stuff for Extra Money–Quickly and Easily!My Profile

  10. I have heard that “Aristotle” 😉 quote before, and it always makes me sad, because on some level, given all the demands on us these days, it’s impossible to do everything with total commitment. I think Aristotle either sets the bar a tiny bit too high, or he didn’t anticipate what life in the 21st Century would be like… or maybe I just suck at life. 😉 What I’m trying to do is separate the things that matter from the things that don’t and do the things that matter with total commitment and focus, but then recognize that on some things it’s okay (or at least necessary) to phone it in. If I didn’t, it would simply all be too much, and that’s already having cut out everything I can reasonably trim from work and life.
    Our Next Life recently posted…The Importance of Pacing Yourself on the Road to Financial IndependenceMy Profile

    1. There is definitely a lot asked of us in the modern world. I think it ultimately comes down to prioritization and figuring out what is really important to us and directing our focus there. If we can start setting our priorities based on our own internal goals and desires rather than those imposed from outside, that may help us to live a happier life.

      Thanks for stopping by, Ms. ONL!
      Matt recently posted…How You Do Anything is How You Do EverythingMy Profile

  11. This is a great post, thank you! Your dad is 100% correct. It’s much easier to perform at a high level if you’re at that level all the time. You can’t be lazy on practice days and then crank it up on game days. It just won’t work. Being nice to every one is a good rule too.

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