008 – Build Long-Term Habits with Craig Kulyk

In this episode, I chat with Craig Kulyk, creator of the blog, The Morning Effect. Craig shares why meditation can be fun and some tips on how to build long-term habits.

[00:00:58] Mission and vision
[00:02:59] “Habitual unconsciousness”
[00:04:20] Deep dive into meditation
[00:10:07] Building self-awareness
[00:12:18] Cues and habits
[00:16:24] More tips
[00:21:54] Craig’s morning routine
[00:25:09] Preventing overwhelm

Resources mentioned:
127 Morning Rituals – The Ultimate List to Customize Your Morning Routine 
The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business
Atomic Habits: An Easy & Proven Way to Build Good Habits & Break Bad Ones

Note: Some of the resources above may be affiliate links, meaning I’d get a commission if you use that link to make a purchase (at no cost to you).


Welcome to LIFT, a podcast for you – the entrepreneur, the leader, the creative – who leads change with heart. If you don’t have it all together, you’re in the right place. I’m your host, Sharlene Sobrepeña.

In today’s episode, I chat with Craig Kulyk, creator of the blog, The Morning Effect. We talk about what he calls “habitual unconsciousness”, why meditation can be an adventure, and how we can make it easier for ourselves when it comes to habits. My biggest takeaway is the idea that meditation can be fun. I’ve read all about its many benefits, and yet, that somehow wasn’t enough for me. But once in a while it can be…trippy? What?! Okay, now you’ve got my attention. Let’s get to it. 

Sharlene:  I’d like to start off with two big questions. What’s your mission with your work and what’s your vision for the world?

Craig: Woah, those are very heavy questions to start. 

Sharlene:  Heavy, I like to start heavy. 

Craig: My mission for my work – I definitely usually don’t lead with this, but I’d say it is centered around awareness and helping other people to increasingly become more aware of their habits, their thoughts, their behaviors and, ultimately, to use that awareness to make change. And one of the biggest things that I found in my journey is that mornings can play a huge role in this and once I was able to really solidify my mornings, I was able to see change everywhere else in my life. And one of the big things about this is that when you start your day and you feel in control, that has a huge impact in developing the awareness through your thoughts and your habits. By starting in the morning, it acts as a bit of a training period for the rest of your day. So, if you can do that for the first 30 minutes of your day, you can even do that in other time periods of your day and it slowly starts to filter out into other areas of your life. That will be my mission, to answer your first question. And the second question, my vision, my vision for the world – an even bigger question. That’s a really hard one, and to be honest, I’m going to struggle with this question a lot because I’m driven a lot more by my mission than my vision. I think that I have a personal vision of where I want to go but there’s so many factors and variables that are beyond my control. So, I really try to stick to my mission and see where that will guide me towards a vision for the world. But I think that doing this work of increasing my own awareness, building good habits and helping other people to do that, things will unfold in a way that will serve great benefit to other people. 

Sharlene:  That’s fair. I like it. So, are you saying that a lot of people aren’t aware, in your observation?

Craig: I think we are naturally not aware. So, until you start to pay more and more attention, which is why meditation is becoming more and more popular, we’re all operating in a state of some sort of habitual unconsciousness. And a lot of this is done so that we can do things more easily. Our brain – it automates certain processes so that we don’t have to use that capacity to think about those things. And that is a huge benefit. Unfortunately, I think we live in a day and an age where it’s just become very common to fall to those habituations and a lot of this, we see with the addictions that we have to technology and the addictions that we have to compulsively checking something related to technology – if that’s email or Facebook or news. All of that is done because of unconscious behavior. So, I think there are a lot of us that are unaware and I think that there’s different levels of it too; that there’s always increasingly more awareness that you can get which is what makes it kind of fun. It’s a bit of a game. You’re like, ‘Oh, okay, just kind of falling into my unconscious state there and reacting out of emotional habit or an emotional pattern, as opposed to really being aware of what’s happening and why I’m acting a certain way.’

Sharlene: I like that you referred to it as a game. It’s almost like curiosity plays a part in it. 

Craig: Absolutely. I’d say, linking this to meditation which has also been sort of in lockstep with my morning changes, was discovering meditation and getting deeper and deeper into it. One of the things that I love about it is that from the outside, it just seems really boring. It seems like, why would you do that? Why would you just sit there and do nothing? And for someone who hasn’t meditated, it’s beyond even the concept of why would you take some time, why would you take days or a week out of your life to just sit and do nothing? But, as you go deeper into the practice of meditating, you start to realize that it’s the farthest thing from boring. Your mind is constantly doing things and going in different directions and you’re really going on a journey. You’re going on this trip into the mind and it’s kind of like backpacking. You’re going on a trip and you’re having these adventures and meeting all these people. You’re doing that and watching your own mind do all these things it does and really start to see how your mind works and how a lot of the things that you may have thought to be true before actually aren’t true. And so, there’s so much to discover in that space, that to me, it is a bit like a game. It’s like, ‘Ooh, what am I going to discover this time?’

Sharlene: So, you said something about you discovered things that aren’t true. Do you have a story about that or an example? 

Craig: Wow, we’re really deep, really quick on this, I guess. I mean, I guess maybe a simpler example to ease into it is that, kind of what we talked about before, thinking that we are aware of certain things that we’re not. I used to not think that I had any addiction to email or social media and I realized that I, in fact, did because if I’m sitting and meditating and thinking about, ‘I wonder what’s happening in my email?’ And then, as soon as I would leave meditation – when something would happen in my life that was putting me into a state that was either annoyed or irritated or angry or frustrated – I would go to check email. I would notice that when I would check email and there wouldn’t be something there or I’d check social media and see if there’s a message or something, if there wasn’t something there, I’d feel just this negative sinking feeling that would come from that. So, just kind of taking the meditation practice and starting to integrate it into my life, is when I started to see all these different examples of how I wasn’t as aware as I thought. 

Sharlene: Thanks for sharing that. So, you mentioned that meditating is like going on a trip. So, speaking of trips, I’ve heard that you can see some really weird things during meditation. Have you seen any crazy things? I’m curious. 

Craig: Well, I did attend a nine day meditation retreat in the summer. I did have some pretty wild experiences there, not really so much in the visuals, but more so in my body. So, there was this one experience where I was sitting with my eyes closed and was kind of just trying to see if I could find a self. If there’s self, where is that sense of self and was just doing a meditation on that and getting just deeper into the meditation and noticing a thought and noticing a sound, and noticing different things that were arising. And after a while, my body – below my neck, I guess – my body just felt like tingling and sensations and energy. I couldn’t really make out where my arms were, where my legs were. It just felt like I was like a blob of sensations. And I was trying to think how my hands were placed and I usually sit, when I mediate, with my palms facing up. So, I thought, okay my palms are probably facing up. That makes the most sense. But as I was sitting there trying to feel it, I was like, well I can’t actually tell if that is true or not. And so, I thought, maybe they’re faced down. And I thought, ‘Oh yeah, that actually feels like that’s probably right.’ And then I had this weird thought of, ‘Well, maybe the thumbs are on the other sides, where they’re not supposed to be, like these weird inverted hands. And that just made no sense, but it felt like that could be equally true in my body. And so, I sat with this for another ten minutes and then the bell ended up ringing. And when I opened my eyes to look, my hands were clasped together the whole time. So, that just blew my mind. I was like, ‘Whoa, I can’t believe that.’ I had no idea how my body was positioned. So, there can be experiences like that. And there were some other experiences that I had that just – when you get deeper and deeper into the meditative state, things start to really slow down. And you go deeper into levels of thoughts, and it gets harder because different thoughts come up that are more challenging, maybe related to some shit you’ve had happen to your life or some long-time struggles, or even past traumas can come up. So, it’s not like a peachy, wonderful time all the time. It’s really difficult work and I even describe it as intensive therapy in that kind of a space. So, there’s a lot to it. And when you start to quiet down, it just seems like there’s almost nothing that’s happening, like I was in the forest and everything’s moving very slowly. But it started to feel like there’s just so much that’s actually happening because everything’s so slowed down and your sensations are quite attuned to everything that’s happening. So, it’s just really fascinating. 

Sharlene: That’s interesting. I didn’t know meditation could be like that. So, I am going to start meditating. So, back to self-awareness; how do we start building self-awareness if that’s something that we’ve never thought about before? How would you get started?

Craig: There are lots of ways that you can develop self-awareness and I would say pick something that you would be interested in doing, that would be fun or it just is something that you would see value in. And these are things that I talk about on my blog about different morning rituals that you can do, because I think the morning is a great time to do these kinds of practices. So, one of them might be journaling. A lot of people like to journal. Or even if you don’t want to write a long form journal or paragraphs, you can just write point form. What are you thinking about? What’s your mood? So, that’s one way. Another way – obviously – meditation, is great for this. Other options, which this is not necessarily a morning ritual, but therapy – having someone else that you’re just talking to, asking you questions and you’re kind of working things through as a way to be self-reflective. And then also, just taking time to actually be self-reflective and that doesn’t have to be with a therapist, but that can just be thinking about where you are at in your life, thinking about what kind of things you typically think about. It’s just really developing the meta awareness of what are your habits of mind, because we all know we have habits that we have with our daily lives, which are often the habits of our conditioning or our body. And really what self-awareness training of any kind is just helping you to develop different habits of mind. So, you can notice certain thought patterns and interrupt those thought patterns or not. Sometimes, you can’t even interrupt them but you can at least see them and you can understand when you’re in a state that is causing you some sort of suffering in some way. With that increased awareness, it helps you to develop other ways that you can cope or change that, or somehow alter those habits so they’re not always the same thing. And one thing that I actually recommend with people that I have worked with or even just on my blog – it’s a blog post – it’s like, what is the first thing you think about in the morning? Just practice that, so every single day, wake up and notice your first thought and it’s really hard – really, really hard. You’re going to forget to do this and you’ll be like, ‘Ah crap, I’m thinking for five minutes.’ But if you would put a piece of paper and your pen next to your bed, you could actually just – that could be the cue to remind you, ‘Oh, I need to think about what my first thought is’ and write it down and do that for a week. And then, after that, when you notice your first thought, decide what your next thought’s going to be. This could be something that is – the questions you asked in the beginning like, ‘What’s your mission?’, ‘What’s your vision?’ – very big picture stuff. Or you can decide to think of something you’re grateful for. You can change the narrative of what you’re thinking about and when you start to really pay attention to what it is that you naturally think about because most people, most of the time, most of us are lost in thought and it’s not until you actually develop practices to not be lost in thought that you can start to see what you’re thinking about and then change what you’re thinking about. 

Sharlene: So, you mentioned cues. How important are cues to developing new habits?

Craig:  Well, cues are the first step in how habits form. So, this was work that first Charles Duhigg put forward in The Power of Habit. And then James Clear and his most recent book, Atomic Habits, built off of that and they’re both fantastic books and I’d highly recommend them. But every habit essentially starts with some cue. That cue could be, and often is, something that’s in our external environment. So, you see a cookie and you’re like, oh I want to eat that cookie so you can go and eat the cookie which is often what I do when I see cookies. And then there are other cues that also can be related to your environment from other people. So, you see someone else who is eating chips and all of a sudden, you want to eat chips, right? Those are very common cues for us. And then there’s also cues that can be internal. So, you might just randomly have a thought that comes to you. And the more that you start to become self-aware, and especially through something like meditation, you start to see that the thoughts actually aren’t as random as you thought they were. It becomes less and less random as you can start to see the association of where that thought might have come from. So, there can be internal triggers and sometimes even triggers from our biology. You might just start to feel sleepy and so, that triggers you to thinking about getting ready to go to bed. So, everything starts with a cue and that’s a really important piece to know how we are influenced because if you can catch the cue, then you can start to really alter the path of what comes next in that chain. 

Sharlene:  And you can create a cue, as you mentioned, because you said something like setting out a piece of paper and pen. So, you’re setting yourself up. 

Craig: Yes, absolutely. This is a great way to build habits, is you want to set cues that are going to make it easier for you to do the habit that you want to be doing. This is something I talk a lot with evening routines. What are you doing in the evening to make your morning a lot easier? And what are some just really, easy simple things that you can do because most people don’t go to bed without brushing their teeth. Everyone pretty much brushes their teeth and then goes to bed. That’s just something we have habituated over the course of our lives. And so, there are other things you can also habituate like, ‘Oh, I’m going to settle my clothes for the next day so I don’t have to decide what I’m going to wear. I can easily just grab them and put them on.’ Or, ‘I’m going to fill up a glass of water and put that out on the counter so that there’s water there. It reminds me to drink water’…‘I’m going to make my lunch the day before.’ Lots of little things that you can do that will help you ensure that you have the habits that you want to have because we are all naturally pretty lazy when it comes to having to do things that are difficult, especially when we’re in a state that is – we’re tired or we’re resisting it. The easier that you can make it to do, especially in the beginning when you’re developing the habits, the more likely you’re going to do it and that’s going to reinforce doing the habit the next time. And that becomes easier the more and more that you do it, which is why we know of people who relinquish bad habits, like quitting smoking. It’s really hard to quit smoking the first day, and the second day, and the third day and the first week. But it gets easier. After years of doing it, you really don’t crave it much anymore. You might once in a while get a craving, but it’s quite rare. So, it’s just a process that you have to invest in and keep reinvesting in. 

Sharlene:  So, do you have any other tips, other than giving yourself cues to create new habits?

Craig:  Well, lots of tips and full of tips – specifically for creating habits?

Sharlene:  Sure. Yup. 

Craig:  Okay. I mean, I would say first thing is read James Clear’s book Atomic Habits – so good. He just really nails all these different ways that you can do this. So, other than making it easy, which is what we’re talking about, he talks about making it rewarding. So, what’s something that you could do that’s going to be enjoyable for you? This is the idea that if you hate going to the gym, don’t go to the gym. Find exercise that you’re going to enjoy doing. And one thing that I like to do often is pairing different activities – so, something I really like to do or something that I have to do but I don’t really want to do. So, doing the dishes or cooking – once I start cooking, I like it, but I resist starting it. So, if I think, ‘Well, okay, I’m going to listen to a podcast while I cook tonight’, then I’m way more excited to actually do that and way more likely to do it. Pairing something you love with something you’re resisting a little bit works really well. And other tips for building habits… starting really small is important and setting the bar very, very low. And also developing some flexibility around, ‘It’s not all or none.’ You don’t have to be always going to the gym every day or always waking up at the same time every single day. Of course, you want to develop habits where you have consistency, but you also want to develop the flexibility for the interruptions that are ultimately going to happen in your life. Talking about mornings, you’re not always going to be at home. You’re going to be traveling sometimes or you’re going to have to catch an early flight, or someone’s going to come stay at your house, or you’re going to get sick, there’s going to be a snow day. There’s just so many things that can come up that are going to interrupt your life, so it’s developing rhythms and flexibility for those times and not beating yourself up so much when you do have to scale down or adjust in some way. So yeah, those are a few more tips for you. 

Sharlene:  So, in regards to morning habits – so what you’re talking about is just having a more flexible mindset towards a morning habit rather than it being a rigid thing? 

Craig: Yeah. You want to have some rhythms. You want to have some structures in place, so that you can have that consistency. But I think one of the biggest challenges that people have is that they have this expectation that they have to be batting 100% all the time. And as soon as that something interrupts it, then it’s all or none. It’s like, ‘Well, I might as well just not do anything because what’s the point?’ And then that just feeds into doing the habits that you don’t want to be doing, which then feeds into the feelings of guilt and shame, which feeds into doing bad habits that you don’t want to be doing because that’s what you think is going to make you feel better at the time. So, it becomes this downward spiral. A big piece of it is just developing a sense of self-compassion and understanding what are reasonable interruptions and what are times when you really need to maybe push yourself a little bit to keep that momentum up. So, it’s a tricky thing. It took me years to really develop my own rhythms and systems where I can be totally comfortable in all those different situations. It doesn’t have to take that long though. I’ve just released a course. It’s in beta right now but there’s 13 people that are going through it and it’s six weeks to go from procrastination and frustration, to being productive and consistent with your morning routines. It hasn’t really surprised me how quickly people have made progress and they’re really developing those structures to be flexible. We’re just starting week four right now. I’ve been able to condense all the stuff that I’ve been learning over six or seven years, and put that into a framework for them to follow which has made it a lot easier. But if you’re trying to figure out on your own –  it’s just like if you’re starting your own business, there’s so much stuff that you’ve got to figure out and there’s always things that are going to happen that you are not anticipating. You have to learn a lot along the way and try and fail. So, having someone that can help you and teach you along the way is what I’m learning – this is my biggest lesson this year – I need to invest more in getting help from people who have walked the path that I want to walk because it just takes too much time when you’re trying to figure everything out on your own. 

Sharlene: I learned that lesson too. 

Craig: Yeah. It’s a hard lesson to learn too. Because if we’re not used to – a lot of us aren’t used to paying for things like that, paying for investing in ourselves. And as soon as I did, it was like, ‘Whoa’ ‘and with meditation too actually, that was where it finally hit me. It was when I listened to some meditation instructors and teachers who when they told their stories about their experience with meditation. And when they finally found a teacher who was just a really good teacher, how quickly they evolved and the growth that they experienced in such a short amount of time. And it made me realize, ‘Okay, yeah, this is why athletes have coaches. This is why business coaches exist.’ And it makes a lot of sense. And so I’ve now converted to being a purchaser of those products and selling something that, I think, I’m seeing can help people to really expedite that process. 

Sharlene:  So, what’s in your morning routine? And have you always been a morning person?

Craig:  I’ll answer the second question first. I have definitely not always been a morning person. The furthest thing from it. I’ve resisted mornings at all costs and when I had the opportunity to sleep in, I would sleep until 8, 8:30, 9 and when I had to get up, I would wake up at the last possible second and then just run around the house like it was a fire drill and trying to get everything together. So, this has been an evolution. My sister still can’t believe it because she used to be the one who would drag me out of bed when we were younger because we had to go to school. So, I haven’t always been a morning person and what was the other question, sorry?

Sharlene: What’s your morning routine?

Craig: Right, of course. What’s my morning routine? Well, I’ve tried a lot of different morning rituals. I’ve tried over a hundred of them and I have a post on my blog, “127 Morning Rituals: The Ultimate List to Customize Your Morning Routine”. I like to change things up and that doesn’t mean I’m changing things up all the time. It means that I’ll go through periods where I’ll experiment with some things and maybe try something new for a little bit, and see if that works. And then try something new for a little bit after that. But the main pieces now which have really stood the test of time are – I keep saying it – meditation (surprise, surprise), some sort of movement (so stretching in some way). Reading is something that I just love doing and I’ve read so many books from reading just 20 minutes, 30 minutes in the morning. I read probably about 45, 50 books in the past two years, two and a half years or so. And before that, I read five books in ten years, so it was a huge jump. And other things, little things, like making my bed and I cross the day off my calendar and just think about the previous day. I think of one thing I’m grateful for. I write down one thing I’m grateful for. These are kind of small win kind of practices that, for me, a lot of it is coming back full circle to where we started this conversation, is about awareness and trying to evolve that insight so that I can just gain a better understanding of not just myself, but how am I showing up in my life and how am I helping other people. One thing that I think people think about in terms of meditation or even other self-awareness practices is that it appears to be selfish, when it’s actually the opposite of that. The reason that you do it is that you’re not such an asshole, so you’re showing up better in your relationships with other people and you’re being more considerate, and you’re being more compassionate, and you’re being more mindful. For me, that’s the drive. It’s not this, ‘I want to grow.’ It’s not all personal development and growth. There’s a quote, “Growth for growth’s sake is the ideology of a cancer cell.” And I think that’s true. You shouldn’t be just trying to grow because of your ego. This is the counter to that. I’m trying to grow so that I can give more to other people and make a contribution, and just develop that wisdom that comes with having or living an examined life. 

Sharlene: I like that. So, you’ve tried over 100 different habits. How can we prevent feeling overwhelmed?

Craig:  Yeah. I mean, don’t try to implement 100 morning habits. This is over the course of seven years, probably. Starts small. Start really, really small. I mean, I started with the first three habits. One of them was flossing because my dental hygienist was telling me that I needed to do that and I just didn’t want to hear that the next time I went and feel the bleeding in my mouth because it was awful. That was one of my motivators and I started literally flossing, ‘I’m going to do one tooth.’ The next day I did two teeth. We hear that all the time, but I actually did it and it totally works. It got me to just get into the habit because it’d hurt when I would floss when I started. So, start very, very small and just get some momentum going. This is a long-term game. It’s a compounding effect and you’re not trying to get to 100 rituals. That’s definitely not the goal. That wasn’t my goal. It just happened over time when I started small and built on top, built on top, and was curious. A lot of these rituals, I tried for a few days. This is not like I developed the habits for them. It was like, ‘Eh, that one’s okay, it’s not really fitting for me right now’ or ‘I don’t want to do this at this time of the day, or at this time of the day or this time of my life right now,’ ‘This doesn’t make sense for me.’ Yeah, in a nutshell, start small. 

Sharlene:  Cool. Thanks. I think I want to end that here. Do you want to talk more about where people can find you?

Craig: Sure. The best place is to go to the blog. It’s themorningeffect.com. You can find a bunch of information there. There’s blog posts and if you’re interested in signing up to my email list, you get a guide book called 5 Simple Strategies to Customize Your Morning Routine and you also get the PDF version of the 127 Morning Rituals, although you don’t need to sign up to see the 127 rituals. That’s a blog post. 

Sharlene: Cool. Thank you so much, Craig. 

Craig: Thanks, Sharlene. 

Thank you for sharing your time with me and listening to LIFT. If this episode resonated with you, I’d appreciate it if you would take a moment to leave a review. That way, more people can discover this resource, and together, we can accelerate good change in the world. Thanks so much. Until next time.