Hey! Are you looking to improve your life?
Do you wish to change your current situation?
Have you had enough of having enough?
Do you want more happiness, money… do you want to be liked?
Do you want people to notice you?
Do you want to prove those people wrong who don’t believe you can achieve something?
We have a solution for you. And it starts with your habits.
A lot of self-help writers profess that your self-improvement journey starts with habits. How you sleep, how you eat, how often you exercise … will in the long run determines the quality of your life.
So, like everyone you start working on your habits. You sign up for your local gym, you start tracking your meals, plan your days and most importantly start looking towards habits as an alternative to the constant struggle of daily life where you had to fight yourself every day to perform daily tasks.
But the problem starts when you expect your habits to automate all of the decisions of your life.
You see a doughnut… you fight hard with yourself to not eat it…and then you wish…
” Gosh! had I had better eating-habits, I wouldn’t have to go through this.”
“I wish I had a habit of studying more hours so that I wouldn’t have to fight myself to stay up all night.
And so on…
Thing is that even a powerful tool like habit has some limits. Some of the behaviors you want to inculcate in your daily life can’t even materialize no matter how much you practice it. And in some cases, habits are the simply wrong approach to make progress.
So, sit back with a cup of coffee, while we dive deep into the deceptive world of habits building.
Reasons Habits Don’t Work.
Habits Aren’t Routines
You cannot automate every good thing in life. As everything good comes at a price.
And you have to pay that price… regularly.
To put it in a better way,
Habits are the process that requires zero to none thinking while performing them. And your goals like studying difficult and boring subjects, pushing harder in the gym, or finishing urgent assignments demands your consistent attention and conscious struggle to fight yourself and finish those tasks.
There isn’t, technically, a habit for studying a difficult topic or working hard at the gym. Nobody ever gets so absorbed and then suddenly snaps out of it to realize they’re midway through a bench-press.
These things, unlike habits, don’t flow automatically and unconsciously in a specific template. These are more like routines which, although done repeatedly, requires effort and thinking.
So, if you are looking for a habit-system where you can perform desired behaviors with zero efforts after a certain period, you will be disappointed.
In my experience, …
Writing starts getting easier— but starting to write never
Exercising starts getting easier—but pushing through the pain never
Waking up in the morning may get easier—but getting out of bed never
Routines may become easier with time, but they rarely have zero effect required.
And that brings us to my 2nd point.
Habits are Often Fragile
Since all the good routine requires you to consciously struggle and fight yourself in performing them, there is a good chance that you will give up after some time. Thus, good habits are rarely permanent.
As all of the good habits are routines—a combination of automated and deliberate action—therefore whenever you fail to perform the “deliberate action” part, you’re going to break that habit.
Let’s take exercise for example. I was working out for more than 6 months, without skipping a single day. I was pretty much unworried about my exercising habits. I was feeling that they have become quite automatic. But during the pandemic when the lockdown occurred, even dragging myself out of the bed was tiring.
Similarly, when you switch jobs, move houses, or get injured and just take a break from working out—you take a break from that particular habit. (exercising, in my case)
Of course, rebuilding those habits will be easier than the first time. But still, you will have to fight yourself again to wake up, get out in the morning and lift those heavyweights.
If you are trying to develop multiple habits at the same time, there will many times where you have to sacrifice one for another. Thus, breaking the continuity.
And that’s why…
Habits Aren’t Commitments
Just like routines, commitments are also not very similar to habits. Commitment is more like a rule or a challenge you’ve put in place for yourself. That rule might be something like, “I must exercise at 10 minutes a day 7 days a week.”, or, “I will eat sugar on weekends only”.
Again, a few elements will get easier after some repetition. Like saying no to birthday cake may feel weird for the first time, but fine after doing it for months.
But unlike the characteristics of habits that flow automatically from a triggering situation. Self-enforced rules tend to behave differently. In fact, there would not be a need for a rule explicitly if you mostly do the same thing without even thinking about it.
E.g.- I was a vegetarian from childhood. So, I don’t need to have any kind of rule on part of my meat-eating habits.
Some elements of commitment can become a habit, after a certain number of repetitions. But again, commitments will make you put in your best effort every time just to maintain your words.
One way to check whether you are doing something out of habits or out of commitments—simply remove the rule which forces you to do a certain activity. And if the breaking of that rule results in doing the contrary to the thing which you were supposed to be doing and to a greater degree.
Then you can be sure that it’s not a habit but a commitment.
Habits are Often Too Slow
The core philosophy of James Clear’ Atomic Habits is to try to make a 1% improvement in every area of your life. Walk slowly, but not backward. Although this strategy has many benefits– in many areas it just simply doesn’t work.
Like a person who is trying to build a business would have very limited time to become profitable or he will run out of capital. Joining a new company, getting back to study, starting on a difficult project– all often involve similar large upfront investments of effort that can’t be smoothed down.
Now, I’m not saying that habits are not relevant in intense projects—clearly, they are. The problem is if you stick to this rule and apply everywhere, you’ll end up having a wildly different strategy than required to complete a certain project.
In some projects, slow and steady may lead you to win the race. Like starting a blog is something that takes time and patience to build an audience—even if you’re really good. Here a slow and steady strategy will be better than trying to measuring your performance after a month.
But in cases like communication and selling, slow and steady generally turns out to be disastrous. People tend to procrastinate or do action faking. They will engage in all kinds of passive learning activities that are not only ineffective but also damaging – reading self-help books instead of actually talking to people.
I am not trying to suggest whether you should go fast or slow or which is the correct option. I’m only suggesting that you should try to use tactics based on their utility (which works) and not on the basis of right or wrong.
Sometimes you need to take things slow, while sometimes you need to go fast. (And sometimes you need to do both)
Human Nature Has Limits
And in the end, habits are just a tool, an important one but still just a tool. And no tool is made for every job in the world. They can serve only up to a certain limit. Like a hammer or a saw, they work really well for some things (banging nails, cutting wood) and really bad for other things (painting a picture, petting a kitten).
In my college days, I used to think I can get my body to behave in any way I want. I used to force myself to sleep only for 4 hours, thinking that after a certain period, a new sleeping pattern will replace the old one.
Well, that was a terrible experience. But let’s save that story for some another time.
The point I wanted to make is that … Your body is not like an infinite plastic. You can’t twist and bend it in any random manner.
And as we discussed above…most of the behaviors we want to cultivate are less of habits and more of routines and commitments. And you can’t expect an effortful behavior to become effortless—although making it somewhat easier will help a lot.
But new problems will arise with habits if they run counter to our basic physiological and psychological needs. Sleeping for 4 hours a day isn’t just a matter of habituation—at some point, your body will give in due to lack of proper rest and exhaustion.
Similarly, habits including extreme dieting, or exercising, or even studying will eventually take a toll on the mind and body.
And thus, they will become very hard to sustain.
Where Do Habits Work Well?
Now after ranting so much on habits, let me clarify that I don’t think that habit-building is useless. Of course, they are useful, especially in the areas where;
- The results would come after overcoming a series of obstacles over a long period.
- The behavior you want can actually run in the background of your life, not requiring your consistent supervision of your mind.
- You want to make long term changes to your lifestyle, rather than a temporary shift for particular circumstances.
Knowing where habits work and where they don’t is a better way to make your habits more powerful. If you have the right expectations, you’ll be far more likely to make them stick.
Well, that’s it for today…. You’ve learned enough for now. Now let me check on my habit of tracking my habits…
Psst…And in the next post, I will share my opinions on How to Solve Problems in Your Life?