Choose the Oatmeal

Break stubborn habits and form better ones with quality tools

by Kathleen Knutson

Anyone can google the definition of quality: "The standard of something as measured against other things of a similar kind; the degree of excellence of something."1 From past experience, the more important questions we should ask ourselves are:

What does quality mean to each of us? How do we achieve it?

A quote summarizing the teachings of Aristotle is, "We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act but a habit."2 I believe that.

If excellence, and therein quality, is a habit, it’s certainly something that should be practiced daily. I am a perfectionist by nature. I strive to be excellent at everything I set out to do. Therefore, I set high expectations for myself and those around me. Some days can pose heavy mental burdens, but often that challenges me to use quality in my daily life.

I work as a consulting engineer in an industry where the reality of having the perfect project doesn’t exist. We strive for perfection every single time—reviewing code, coordinating, meeting, double-checking work and repeating the process. But human error is simply not easy to overcome.

To protect against this risk, contingencies are put in place so we can achieve quality outcomes. We approach every project knowing we will do our absolute best to serve our clients. When the ball drops and challenges arise, our response will show the integrity and insight to correct things.

To me, excellence is just a degree below perfect because the realistic goal should be to get as close to perfection as possible. So how do we get there and achieve quality and excellence? By creating new habits.

There’s a popular saying that it takes 21 days to form a new habit. But if you have ever tried a diet or recovery program, you know that isn’t true. It takes more than time to generate quality habits. It takes insight, drive and constant practice.

After graduating college, I realized that if I wanted to become the person I was striving to be, I needed to make a change in my approach—not to just fix the symptom, but find the root of the problem.

At that time, I wanted to lose weight. I started to realize the weight wasn’t the problem—it was a symptom of the fact that I needed to be healthier as a whole. To accomplish this, I started making small changes in my life—one habit at a time. I set a series of small goals for myself with achievement markers, not an "end."

I reached the first achievement marker in nine months by losing more than 50 pounds, but I haven’t stopped improving the entire process. The goal now isn’t always to lose weight, but to continue to make other quality decisions in my life.

Throughout the process, there were struggles.

I started by simply changing what I ate for breakfast: wholegrain oatmeal instead of sugary cereals. It progressed to scheduled workouts and planned healthy dinners. Life sometimes got in my way, however, and I would find myself working late or handling family emergencies.

I had to push to continue to improve by choosing to make the healthiest choices I could when put in any situation—grilled instead of fried chicken in the fast food drive-through or a lunchtime walk to replace an evening workout.

Never give up

Putting in effort and a positive attitude always produced a better outcome than giving up. We can’t ignore our goals in the moment just because things don’t go as planned. Be creative, show ingenuity and surprise yourself.

There were times I made excuses for deviating from my improvement plan, and those decisions led to disappointment the following day, week or month. Each time, I realized that I needed to take ownership of my own excuses, poor planning and lack of focus. If I wanted to get closer to excellence, I could not let my past choices own my future.

By recognizing our choices and owning them, we become accountable to ourselves—continually learning to be better by makes choices—big and small—that affect our lives—physically, emotionally and verbally.

If we break down our actions every day and consciously think about how we are speaking or eating, our posture or attitude, we can focus on becoming more self aware and strive for excellence in each thing, thus becoming more excellent as a whole.

Start with something simple and focus on it each time you do it. Choose the oatmeal. Although it may never be completely subconscious, it will become easier. That is the point when you know that you are ready to add a new quality habit. That is your first step toward excellence.


  1. "Quality," Oxford English Dictionary, Oxford University Press, 2013.
  2. Will Durant, The Story of Philosophy: The Lives and Opinions of the Greater Philosophers, reissue, Simon and Schuster, 2012 p. 87.

Kathleen Knutson is a project engineer at RTM Engineering Consultants in Milwaukee, WI. She has a bachelor’s degree in architectural engineering and electrical building system design from the Milwaukee School of Engineering.

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