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You are what you repeat


A few years ago I sat down one morning and wrote a poem titled “You are what you repeat.” It came to me in a moment of inspiration and I finished it in one sitting. The truth is it didn’t “just come to me in a flash,” the idea for it had been ruminating for years. I think the poem really explains a lot about why someone has the life that they do.

“You are what you repeat” by Barney Matthews

You are what you repeat,
I know it is true,
Words that you say,
And deeds that you do.

Words become plans,
Plans become deeds,
This is what determines,
Where your life leads.

Once is a chance,
Twice is a choice,
If you do it again,
Will your future rejoice.

Whether the outcome,
Is victory or defeat,
It's all because,
Of what you repeat.

What it really says is what kind of person you are, and what your life is like, is caused by what you have repeated. Kind people aren’t just nice to people sometimes, they are nice to people all the time. Healthy people don’t just eat a salad once a month, they eat healthy food regularly. Successful people didn’t just work hard once, they work hard every day.

Self talk

The first part of “You are what you repeat” is “words become plans.” Or as Earl Nightingale says in his brilliant talk The Strangest Secret - “You become what you think about all of the time.”

The more your mind hears something, the more it believes it to be true (that's basically how brainwashing works.) The average person has about 20,000 thoughts a day. That means nearly 7,000 of your thoughts are going to be negative.

The average person has two negative thoughts for every positive one. Our brain was designed this way to protect us from threats a long time ago. The threats may not still exist, but our brains still work the same way. That's a long winded way of saying that you are more likely telling yourself more bad things about yourself than good things.

If you keep telling yourself "I can't use a use a computer," or "I can't talk in public," or "I can't drive stick shift" - whether or not it is true to start, if you tell yourself it enough times, eventually you will believe it and it will be true. You won’t be computer literate, you won’t be able to give public speeches, you won’t be able to drive stick!

You can brainwash yourself to believe good things too though. Sports psychologists do it with top athletes all the time. In fact, Researchers at Waseda University in Japan found that positive self-talk improved physical performance by 11%.

When it comes to positive self talk, what the study found worked was:

1. Say it in the third person. For example "Barney handles difficult people well."

2. Say it with confidence. You have to believe what you are saying to yourself.

3. Say what you want. For example "I am a good public speaker" rather than "I don't stutter when I speak in public."

4. It must be realistic. For example: "I can make a basketball shot" instead of "I will play in the NBA next week."

5. It must be consistent. You must consistently use the positive self talk. Once before a big event isn't enough.

If there is something I want to develop in myself, I have got in to the habit of repeating the phrase every time I wash my hands. It serves as a reminder to do it throughout the day, I also get to look at myself while I am saying it. If I find myself getting in to a negative self talk spiral I tell myself "STOP." I then pause and repeat my positive self talk phrase.

It’s more than telling yourself what you can do though, what you keep repeating to yourself affects your beliefs too. If you keep telling yourself “all ginger headed people are crazy” or “women can’t park,” even if it’s only a “joke” to begin with, eventually you will truly believe it. You might not admit these beliefs outwardly but your actions will reflect the belief. Ask yourself, “is what I tell myself about other people really true 100% of the time? If its not and and you are repeating a negative stereotype, change what you tell yourself. You see what you look for, so if you are telling yourself that "women can't park, you will focus on the badly parked cars." If on the other hand you tell yourself "women can park as well as men" you will notice all the well parked cars."

Implementation intentions

The next part of “You are what you repeat” is “plans become deeds.”

Picture this. You wake up on a Saturday morning, open the curtains, see its going to be a lovely sunny day today. You say to yourself “I might go for a walk today.” Fast forward to the end of the day. Guess what you didn’t do today! That’s right, you didn't go for a walk.

There are several reasons you may not have gone for a walk.

You “forgot.” You simply got caught up in the day and forgot about going for a walk until you closed the curtains at the end of the day.

You didn’t seize the opportunity when it arose. You had some free time after lunch when you have gone for a walk but you folded laundry instead.

You had doubts when the opportunity arose. You looked out the window and their was a cloud and decided to stay inside instead.

I’m sure everyone has had this happen to them. The way to overcome this is by using a tool called “implementation intentions.”

Researchers conducted an interesting experiment a few years ago. They asked two groups of students to write an assignment over their Christmas break about what they did on Christmas Eve. The students were asked to turn in the assignment the day after Christmas. One group of students had to specify where and when they planned on writing the assignment. The other group didn’t specify when and where they planned to write their assignment.

What they found was 71% of the students who specified when and where they would work on their assignment turned it on on time. In contrast, only 32% of the students who did not specify when they would work on the assignment turned it in on time. In other words, the students who said in advance when they would work on the assignment were twice as successful.

What the students were doing was declaring “implementation intentions.” An implementation intention is the idea of deciding in advance when and where you will do something. For example “when I finish eating dinner then I will go brush my teeth.” This concept was discovered by a gentleman named Peter Gollwitzer and has been tested and shown to work in over 100 independent studies. In fact these studies have shown that people who declare implementation intentions are between 2 and 3 times more likely to follow through.

This truly is “plans become deeds.” If you decide in the morning that you are going to do something (whether it be go for a walk at lunchtime, count to 10 before you shout at the kids or whatever) then you are 2 or 3 more times likely to actually do it. Tell yourself "I am going to go for a walk as soon as I have had my shower this morning" and you have a much greater chance of actually going for the walk! Try it, it works!


The last part of “You are what you repeat is “deeds.”

"The Fortune Teller."

There was once a young man who contemplated his life a lot. He was always wondering if he was going to be successful. Would he be rich? Would he make something of his life? Over the years, he asked everyone he knew “do you think I am going to have a successful life?” Everyone he asked replied “I can’t answer that for you.”

Still he wanted to know the answer to his question. After many years of not getting the answer, he made the decision to go see a Fortune Teller. He didn’t particularly believe in Fortune Tellers, but he didn’t know what else to do. He needed to know the answer to his question. So he found a Fortune Teller in his town and arranged to go see her.

The day of the appointment arrived and he went to see the Fortune Teller at her place of business. He entered the small, non-descript building, and there sitting in a comfortable chair was the Fortune Teller.

“You must be the young man I spoke to earlier this week. What can I do for you?” asked the Fortune Teller kindly.

“I hope you can help. I want to know about my life. I want to know, am I going to be successful in life? Can you help me?” replied the boy.

“I can, with certainty,” responded the Fortune Teller.

“Tell me what you do every day,” continued the Fortune Teller.

“Aren’t you supposed to look in a crystal ball or consult the cards,” asked the young man puzzled.

“Answer my question and I will tell you how your life will turn out,” responded the Fortune Teller.

Reluctantly the boy tells her. “I usually wake up late, I go to school, I come home, I quickly do my homework, I play computer games, I watch TV and then I go to bed.”

“You will be poor in wealth and poor in health,” said the Fortune Teller.

“That’s terrible,” said the young man “I’m doomed.”

“You are not doomed,” said the Fortune Teller.

“I don’t understand,” said the young man, “you said you can tell what my life will be like with certainty.”

“I can,” said the Fortune Teller. “However, you can change your future at any time.”

“How do I change my future? Can you tell me how?” said the young man.

“Daily deeds determine destinies,” said the Fortune Teller, “Daily deeds determine destinies. What you do every day will become your destiny. If you change your daily deeds, you will change your destiny. You need to change your daily deeds, you need to change your habits.”

“How do I do that?” asked the young man.

“First you need to decide how you want your life to be, and then you need to create habits to get you there,” explained the Fortune Teller.

“So, I am in control of how my life will end up,” said the young man. “If I decide how I want my life to end up, I can make it happen.”

“This is true. Your daily deeds determine your destiny and you determine your daily deeds. Now you know the answer to the question you have always wanted to know, was within you the whole time. Farewell young man. I wish you a good and successful life,” said the Fortune Teller.

Deeds that you repeatedly do become habits. At least 40% of what you do every single day is habit and not conscious decision. If you have the habit of snacking on carrot sticks instead of chips you will be healthier If you have the habit of writing a gratitude journal instead of complaining about all the bad things in your life to anyone who will listen you will be happier.

Researchers at MIT have found that every habit has 3 parts - reminder, routine and rewards. The reminder is what triggers you to do the habit. The routine is the set of actions or the habit itself. The reward is the benefit you get from it. If you are interested in learning more about habits head over to my blog

“One page habits” is a simple tool that anyone can use to help create new habits. Start by getting a sheet of paper and writing this on it:




If I miss one day I will do my habit the next day.

Then pick a habit to build. It is important to work on only one habit at a time. Focusing on one habit at a time increases your chance of success by 70%. Start small with your habit and increase it over time. Make it so small you can’t not do it. It can take several months to form a habit so you have plenty of time to grow it.
After that pick a reminder for the habit. The most common reminders are a time, a place, an alarm or existing habit. Consider what could get in the way of doing your habit as you are thinking about the reminder and make a plan to overcome it ahead of time.

Now, fill in the “WHEN… THEN…” statement on the sheet with the reminder (“when”) and the routine (“then.”) This is your implementation intention – as well as your habit. Cool, huh?

Place your One Page Habit sheet somewhere you will see it. Read your “WHEN… THEN…” statement every morning. This is important. This is setting the intention for your “implementation intention” to work. This is what is going to help you actually do your habit every day.

Mentally rehearse the habit in your head at the same time. Visualize yourself doing your habit. Sports Psychologists use mental practice to decrease the time needed to learn a new action. You can use this to help form your habit more quickly too.

Do your habit at your chosen time. Note: don’t skip this step. 🙂

Mark an “X” on the grid each time you do your habit. Tracking your progress on a chart leverages the brains psychological desire for consistency to help you persist until your routine becomes a habit.

Commit to never missing more than one day in a row. Setting an implementation intention a head of time in case you skip a day helps you continue your habit. Missing one day occasionally is OK. Missing two days is dangerous because it often leads to missing three days then four days and before you know it you have stopped completely.
I’ve found over the years that the excitement for doing a new habit will only lasts for a few days. If you want to keep it up for long enough for it to become an actual habit you need to leverage some tools. This One Page Habit tool combines several proven psychological concepts to help you persist.


Now you know my theory that “you are what you repeat.” Take some time and think about what you repeatedly tell yourself, what you repeatedly plan (or don’t), and what you repeatedly do. Will repeating these things make you the kind of person you want to be? Will repeating these things give you the end results you want? If the answer is no, make the decision to change. Make a conscious decision to start repeating the things that will help you.