I’ll admit that I’m one of those people who’d prefer to read as many articles or books as I can about habits rather than actually staying persistent with building good habits in real life.
I know it’s a trap, and yet I still fall for it.
It’s not enough to rationally understand that persistently taking action every single day to build up a particular habit is good for me, because guess what?
There are too many days when my mind doesn’t friggin’ wanna cooperate.
What I used to see as a personal and unique flaw in myself really has more to do with the fact that like most living things, the human mind is designed to resist discomfort.
And if habits had anything to do with comfort, well, none of us would have problems sticking with them.
I like to think that there are three types of habit strugglers:
- The ones who can’t ever stop talking about how much they want to start a new habit, but then never actually start
- The ones who start with unrealistic or overly ambitious expectations, and then quit at the first sign of discomfort (literally within a day or two)
- The ones who start and do quite well at keeping it up for a few days / weeks / months but still always end up sliding back into their old, safe, boring, stagnate ways at some point
I’ve been every one of the three, but these days I’m mostly the third type.
And probably like most people, I thought I couldn’t stick to my good habits over the long run because I was simply bad at managing willpower and exercising good self control.
And so I looked to the external world (a.k.a. the internet) for answers to my troubles.
And unsurprisingly, I came across a ton of shallow articles with messages like “focus on your dreams” and weird nature photos with sappy quotes on them.
But after many months of reading, contemplating, struggling, trying to accept the misery, getting frustrated, and all sorts of other crazy stuff that I only hoped would make me not slide back into old ways, it finally dawned on me…
Willpower and self control shouldn’t even be a part of the long-term strategy for developing a good, lifelong habit.
I shouldn’t need to rely on willpower and self control to keep up good habits.
None of of us should.
Duh – that’s why they’re called habits!
They’re supposed to become automatic after a certain point.
This isn’t so much a persistent day-to-day routine task problem as it is an inner growth problem, which needs to be addressed at the root.
The root problem is that my mind understands that sticking to habits is totally not fun and often very uncomfortable to do, even when I know the rewards will be worth it.
This is especially true on certain days when conditions are less than ideal.
Then it’s not even a habit anyway – it’s just me lying to myself, struggling to do a good thing that I secretly don’t want to do at all.
So, that sucks.
The sad thing is that this how most people tend to approach habit building.
So I got to thinking…
How do I address this at the root, so I’m not resisting and hating everything and getting thrown off course all the time?
Well, after more research and experimentation, I came up with two major key components of habit building that I’ve found to make the greatest difference (so far).
Surprisingly, they’re both extremely unintuitive:
1. Focus on the quantity of the habit rather than the quality.
2. Make your goal irrelevant by focusing on the process.
I know this sounds so ridiculously dumb.
It’s so dumb, you’re probably sitting there right now, wishing you could chuck all the useless and over hyped personal development books you have lining your bookshelves or stacked up somewhere in a corner (the big, fat hardcopy kind) right at my head because this is the dumbest advice you’ve definitely ever heard.
Here’s the part where I thoroughly explain myself.
Quantity over quality: Start by making your new habit so stupidly easy that you can’t not do it.
Clearly, we’re all very results-driven by the good habits we decide to put in place.
Without results, what’s the point in even building a habit?
So, it’s natural that we all try to do a really good job every day when habit-making time rolls around.
We focus on the quality of our habit building efforts, because the better the quality, the closer it brings us to our desired results.
For example, if a person who currently has no real physical fitness regimen wants to build a habit to get their desired results of looking hotter and / or improving overall health, it seems completely logical to spend an hour sweating it out at the gym than it does to do one squat and then call it a day.
ANYONE whose legs and knees and hips work just fine can do a single squat.
And that’s exactly the point.
If you make the commitment to start doing a single squat every day, you can’t not do it — because it’s just too easy.
But going to the gym 3 to 5 times a week and spending AN HOUR there, starting now for the rest of your life?
Between work and errands and the kids being annoying and general exhaustion?
That sounds like cool beans when conditions are mega ideal and you’re just feeling really good overall, but then there’s all the other times when life kinda sucks.
Yeah, try working out at the gym for an hour 3 to 5 times a week when Brad from marketing needs that report from you sooner than expected, your dog swallows your kid’s Batman action figure, nobody has underwear because laundry hasn’t been done in like literally a month and you actually start to lose that initial spark that got you started in the first place.
You can totally still do a single squat 3 to 5 times a week, though.
A single squat is so easy, it’s laughable.
And yes, I’m being serious about actually doing it.
But then, what about results?
One stupid squat isn’t going to do a damn thing for the booty!
Lol, I know, but here’s where we all get messed up.
We’re all so focused on changing our external circumstances and achieving results, thinking that this is what it takes to permanently change our behaviour.
We think that these external results will keep us motivated and will totally solve all the subconscious problems we’d rather not even acknowledge.
These surface-level strategies can work in the short-term, but it’s a recipe for disaster if you’re trying to create a habit that you can stick with for longer than a few days or weeks.
Remember, your mind hates discomfort.
Results are nice and all, and they can briefly distract you from discomfort, but they will never eliminate it.
So take the discomfort out of the whole equation and make it so simple that there’s no real resistance.
Quantity over quality.
- Eat one vegetable every day if you’d like to become vegetarian / vegan.
- Read one page of a book every day if you want to be reading at a rate of one book a week.
- Practice a particular skill for just 5 minutes every day if you’re trying to get better at it.
- Toss, clean, or put one thing away from around your home every day if you want to maintain an organized home.
I could go on.
These quantity-based habits aren’t designed to get you much in the way of results, and if you can accept that, then you’ll be WAY ahead of the crowd.
I still have a bit of a hard time accepting it.
It’s more about just getting you to take action while genuinely not hating it.
The cool thing about this ridiculously easy approach to habit building is that you can give yourself permission to stop when you’re done, or you can keep going if you’re up for it.
After you’ve done the bare minimum, you’ll have gained a small bit of momentum, and on some days you’ll find that you’ll actually want to go ahead and eat more vegetables, read not one but TWO pages of your book today, practice learning how to code for a whopping 15 minutes, organize a whole shelf in your living room or do 10 squats plus 10 lunges on each leg!
But other days, you probably won’t feel like doing more than the required single task or 5 minutes of practice, and that’s okay — because you just have to stick to the minimum.
A quantity-based approach tricks you into getting started, because it eliminates everything that overwhelms you and feels really uncomfortable in a quality-based approach.
By sticking with a quantity-based habit building approach consistently, your mindset will start to shift.
Your comfort zone expands.
You no longer experience resistance.
Your job NOW is to keep this going, slowly building on it by adding one extra small task here or five more minutes there every few weeks or so until finally, you achieve the proper balance between behavioural change at the very root and the external results you wanted in the first place.
Most people won’t try this approach because it’s painfully slow, and they want results now.
I get it.
Trust me, I get it.
But I’ve gotten to the point where I’m willing to put in the time to change the deepest part of myself if it means I’ll stop backsliding on some of the good habits I know I need to develop and maintain for the rest of my life.
Now let’s move on to the second super unintuitive component of habit building you’re probably going to hate me for…
Make your goal irrelevant: Focus on improving the process and getting better at what you’re doing rather than striving for a specific outcome.
If you’re anything like me, plus the billions of other humans who inhabit planet Earth, you probably have a way of thinking like this:
“I have a big, huge, long-term goal I want to reach, and if I do the habit over and over again for days and weeks and months and years, then I will eventually reach it and I will live happily ever after.”
The goal is the big motivator, right?
It’s losing the last 10 pounds, it’s the business you want to get up and running profitably, it’s the perfect relationship or marriage you’ve dreamed of, it’s the car / house / boat / whatever you want to own, it’s getting out of debt and finding financial stability, it’s all these things.
You could say that having a habit without a goal is like driving somewhere without a destination.
But what if you just drove and explored where it could take you?
(Dang, that’s some real fortune cookie sounding quotation right there.)
Listen, I never said don’t have a goal.
By all means have a goal, and make it big!
But when you fixate on it and measure all your success by how close or how far you are to reaching it, you’re more likely to fall off track with your good habits.
Psychologists call this a performance-based goal.
A mastery-based goal, on the other hand, involves focusing on the process rather than the outcome.
A person with a performance goal thinks, “I have to do [the habit] today because if I don’t, I won’t reach [the goal]” whereas a person with a mastery goal thinks, “I have to do [the habit] today because if I don’t, I will not have improved.”
It turns out that performance goals are great for motivation in the short-term, because they have everything to do with that big outcome that you’re constantly fantasizing about.
But they’re terrible for long-term success, which always involves dealing with a lot of uncertainty, doing things imperfectly, making a lot of mistakes, and of course handling critics.
Taking a performance-based approach to habit building creates a mindset that sees every obstacle and setback as a bad thing that must be avoided.
After all, it’s keeping you from producing the outcome.
And when you do come by one of those obstacles or setbacks that try to drag you down, you’re more likely to stay down there.
Perfectionists love the performance-based goal approach because it’s based off of hating / fearing / avoiding obstacles, which is in alignment with the perfect fantasy worlds they’ve created in their heads.
A mastery-based approach to habit building, however, involves flipping everything around so that obstacles and setbacks are seen as opportunities to get better.
This doesn’t mean that obstacles and setbacks automatically become fun and awesome — it just means that they’re embraced in a way that they’re seen as extremely valuable lessons, regardless of how messy things get or how bad things go.
Eventually, once you’ve stuck to a mastery-based approach for long enough, you should notice that your original desire for reaching a specific goal begins to dissipate as your subconscious mind finally starts to recognize just how valuable it is to keep improving yourself by keeping up with the habit — no matter what end goal you had in mind in the first place.
In other words, having a goal sort of becomes unnecessary because you just keep going no matter what, whether you reach it or not, with no real end in sight.
Take diet and exercise, for example.
A lot of people start eating better and working out because they have a goal to lose X amount of pounds or they want to fit into a size Y.
These people often fail because they allow themselves to give up and be taken down by obstacles like eating out at restaurants, busy days at school or at work, unexpected cravings, peer pressure from friends to eat junk, emotional triggers and weight loss plateaus.
Some people do reach their goal, but many eventually gain all their weight back.
The difference between the people who fail and the people who don’t fail has a lot to do with their level of fixation on their goal of losing X pounds or fitting into a size Y.
The people who actually do make great weight loss progress and don’t gain it all back are the ones who’ve developed solid subconscious beliefs that eating healthy and exercising regularly are beneficial habits in and of themselves and are not a means to an end.
And even if a person really does want to lose X pounds, they can still succeed as long they don’t place the value of their goal higher than the improvement they know they’ll get out of sticking with the habit.
I love how James Clear’s concept of identity-based habits applies so well to this whole idea of making the goal irrelevant.
By making the goal irrelevant and focusing on what the habit can do to help you improve yourself, you’re essentially making it a part of who you really are rather than just an external thing you’re trying to achieve.
As if this wasn’t enough to convince you to stop obsessing over a goal, consider how focusing on the process itself and your own improvement will help you to better deal with lack of control in certain areas of your life and develop more resilience.
Since obstacles and setbacks are seen as opportunistic stepping stones, they will always serve to build you up rather than drag you down.
Just think of all the people you know who manage to stay in such great shape, yet don’t avoid potlucks and vacations and stressful situations and birthday cakes.
They simply integrate them into the process — indulging when they want, planning around their other healthy meals, and learning from every decision and action they take.
Letting go of the intense desire for control and learning how to become more resilient are two topics I want to cover in greater detail sometime in the future.
But for now, let’s recap:
We’re bad at sticking to good habits because it’s often very uncomfortable to maintain the quality of effort we want to make right off the bat, creating resistance in our minds and eventually making us fall off track.
We can fix this by taking a quantity-based approach to habit building by doing one small task or spending 5 minutes practicing something, which takes most of the discomfort out of the picture and slowly reshapes our subconscious minds.
We’re also pretty bad at sticking to good habits because we measure our success by our ability to achieve an outcome, which makes us fear obstacles and convinces us to give up when we have to face those obstacles.
We can fix this by focusing on the process instead of the outcome and recognizing the value of improvement by embracing every obstacle as something that contributes to improvement.
I think this is probably the best I’ve ever been able to break down what’s exactly required to develop and maintain good, lifelong habits.
They’re tricky little bastards, that’s for sure, but they’re not impossible to master.
It’s a total mind game, which is why simply changing your behaviour and lying to yourself that you love it without actually growing yourself on an inner level is such a waste of time.
Slipping back into our old ways is the biggest challenge we have to face.
So are you willing to tackle your habit-sticking issues by digging right down to their roots, or are you fine with trying to take pointless shortcuts that only get you stuck on the never ending merry-go-round of backsliding doom?
Hey, it’s your choice. 😉
Photo via brando.n
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