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Making Good Habits Last

Making good habits last, especially when you lack the motivation to, so how do you do it?

In my experience, it’s tough to swim with a greased watermelon. There’s no real need to explain this one. It’s heavy, nearly impossible to get a grip on, and even tougher to kick to the surface with. Add a half-dozen kids into a swimming pool to fight for possession of said melon and you may wonder if this game wasn’t more entertaining for the adults watching than the kids actually in the water (it definitely was). My aunt goaded my cousins and I into playing this game one summer when I was a kid, and I think about that game now and again. It was likely the best metaphor that I’ve found as a now-adult for the difficulty of getting a good habit to stick.

Historically, I’ve sucked at making good habits last. To me, sticking with a positive new habit was like trying to swim a slick watermelon to the surface with half a lung of air. Even after 28 years of practice brushing my teeth, I still sometimes fail at this ridiculously simple habit. Getting into a running kick? Learning a new language? Forget about it. I can start these habits like nobody’s business, but run into me a week from now? That’s just asking for disappointment. That was, at least, until a few weeks ago.

I recently listened to an audiobook called Atomic Habits by James Clear, which took me about a week to finish. Before you ask, no, I’m not getting paid for this referral. Mr. Clear has never heard of me and I won’t make a dime for referring to his work. That said, it’s a solidly written “how-to” on building good habits and making bad ones fall away, which I was able to download using a free trial of Audible. If you have a chance to download it for free by this method, I’d highly recommend it.

James spends a good portion of the book discussing a very specific strategy for forming a good habit, and it turned my old notion, of building habits by sheer force of will, on its head. Most people are taught at an early age that making a good habit stick results from a mixture of determination and perseverance. It makes a certain sense, too. If there was a guide for this kind of thinking, it might go something like this:

  1. You control your actions.
  2. Habits are repeated actions.
  3. Therefore, you control your habits.

In the real world, however, it’s almost never this simple. Do I control my actions? Sure. Do I get to decide how much willpower I have after a long, stressful day at work or school? Not so much. Life has a way of getting in the way despite our better intentions and trying to maintain a habit while you’re exhausted is like trying to exercise with lead boots. No matter how good the exercise is for you, or how badly you want to stick with it, you were disadvantaged from the start.

So here’s the secret I picked up from Atomic Habits – whatever habit you want to form, start by making it attractive. That’s it; no smoke and mirrors. Just taking your habit and giving your brain the right incentives to want to do it. No one has unlimited willpower to spend on any given day. Telling yourself that you’ll always have the determination to resist that brownie while dieting is like telling yourself you’ll have the energy to jog a mile at any given moment. While it’s a nice thought, it’s complete rubbish in the real world. In reality, you’ll seldom have boundless energy, so if you’re working to start a habit, make it attractive to your brain while taking as little willpower as possible. If we were to rewrite our mantra for habit-forming, it might look like this:

  1. I control my actions, but I have limited willpower to spend at any given moment.
  2. Forming a good habit costs me willpower.
  3. Therefore, I can increase my odds of sticking with a good habit by making the habit as attractive and willpower-friendly as possible.

When you realign your thinking to this mindset, some cool things start to happen. You’re no longer “lazy” or “weak” when you struggle to stick to a habit; instead, you simply haven’t attached the right incentives. Grappling with a new habit is no longer guilt-inducing, but rather a chance for you to reassess your approach to positive habit-forming and try again. And perhaps just as importantly, you start looking at your willpower as a finite resource – which gives you a reason to carefully choose the people and work you spend it on. It’s a simple concept: your brain likes doing things it likes and hates doing things it hates, so attach good things to your habits and your brain will follow along. It won’t turn the greased watermelon into a balloon, but it will almost certainly make it smaller, lighter, and easier to carry. Here’s an example from my own life.

When starting my jogging habit, I didn’t start by pushing myself past my comfort zone. Instead, I started by walking at whatever pace I was comfortable with and kept it up only as long my legs weren’t too tired. I made it a point to enjoy the air, sunshine, and the chance to leave my desk for a while. Finally, I always rewarded myself with a cup of coffee when I finished. This isn’t the fastest way to get in shape, but that isn’t the point. I came to realize that a lifetime habit of jogging was far more important than getting in shape in a month. By prioritizing the habit over the result, I’d taken a habit I don’t normally like (jogging) and made it as attractive to my brain as possible (a comfortable pace, enjoying the scenery, and a cup of coffee) – making it something I now enjoy doing. All the pain points about jogging had been removed or lessened. It’s made jogging doable, even on my bad days.

You can apply this principle to your own habits. Perhaps you want to start eating healthier. Eating healthy can be a pain, especially at first – there are new foods to buy, new recipes to learn and the food has a reputation for tasting… well, bland. These are all points of friction, but removing the friction can have an outsize result on your overall goal of eating healthy. Let’s remove or lessen the pain points:

  • New foods can be a pain to shop for, or they can add a sense of newness to what is a routine for many people. Try going somewhere fresh and different to shop while picking up new foods. After you’ve shopped, reward yourself with a drink or snack you enjoy.
  • New recipes can be an extra burden to learn, or they can provide an opportunity to become a more rounded, cultured cook. You can also try following up every new recipe you try with a habit you already do and enjoy, like watching your favorite show or movies. Your brain will start to link the new habit with watching the show – providing an incentive to keep the habit going.
  • Bland-tasting food is the issue with eating healthy that most people get stuck on. The solution? Make it a goal to learn some epic cooking skills. Most ingredients can be delicious if prepared correctly and healthy foods are no exception – many people simply lack the know-how to bring out the food’s potential. Hop on the internet to learn how certain spices react well (or badly) to heat, for example, or how to brine chicken to bring out its best flavor and texture. No one ever complained about being able to make too good of food.

These are some rough examples, but they demonstrate the concepts of better habit-forming. Remove the pain points, or at least lessen them as much as possible. Make the habit attractive by adding pleasure to the habit, or by consistently providing a reward to accompany it (preferably both). And finally, shift your focus from being goal-focused to being habit focused. A goal provides a reward once – just after it’s attained. Habits provide rewards indefinitely – for as long as they’re maintained.

“Motivation is what gets you started. Habit is what keeps you going.”

– Jim Rohn