The Science Behind Why We Struggle with Our Habits

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By Olivier Poirier-Leroy
Guest columnist

“Good habits are worth being fanatical about.” –John Irving

Having good habits in our personal life, at work, and in the gym is the dream. With little fanfare or need for motivation the goal is to be able to cruise through our day, doing the right things, and as a result, reaping the dividends. All seemingly on auto-pilot.

And yet, while so many of us talk about building better habits, there is little doubt that we struggle mightily in making them stick.

Here is why we struggle with developing good habits:

  1. We make it impossible to start.

You don’t run a marathon by thinking about the sum of the mileage to be completed. You run it by jogging around the corner. And then around the next corner.

You don’t build a high authority website by writing 500 posts. You do it by writing one post today. And then another tomorrow. And again the day after that.

Viewing your habit or goal in it’s sum is intimidating. Discouraging to the point of paralysis. Instead, view it in the context of simply showing up.

Make starting the goal. Once we start your brain, that powerful and surprisingly needy thing that it is, will take over. Your brain abhors incomplete tasks.

Here are a few different ways to rephrase your habit so that you are more likely to start and capitalize on the momentum that comes from doing so:

  • I am going to sit at my desk and write 50 words. > I am going to write a 1,500 word post.
  • I am going to run to the end of the block. > I am going to run a 10k.
  • I am going to make one sales call. > I am going to call 50 prospects.

Don’t underestimate the power of baby-stepping your way into doing difficult tasks. 

  1. We get habit greedy.

The possibility of success breeds the desire to list out even more opportunities for improvement. Drunk on the idea of all the change we can make we become habit greedy. Instead of installing one challenging habit we fill out a full roster of them.

Not only are we going to start working out for 90 minutes every single day, but we are also going to write two blogs posts, reach out to 25 influencers in our market, eat better, take 30 minutes out of our day to catch up with family and friends, drop all social media, and so on.

While well-intentioned, this sudden barrage of new habits will tap your reservoir of self-control to the point that it will dry up. When self-control runs low, your physical stamina dries up, you procrastinate, and you exhibit less persistence.

Yes, keeping things simple and focusing on building one good habit at a time might go against our perceptions of exceptionalism, and requires a nearly super-human amount of patience and humility, but if you are serious about achieving the things you want to achieve you need to manage your levels of self-control appropriately.

  1. We create stand-alone habits.

Don’t leave your new habit out in the wilderness to fend for itself. Give it a home next to something that you do every single day, and it will help grease the wheels of action and consistency.

This is commonly known as if-then planning and using it can increase the likelihood of habit formation by 200-300 percent. All you need to do is couple the habit you want with something that is already a part of your day:

  • Every time I turn on the television I am going to do 100 crunches.
  • Each time I drive home I am going to stop at the grocery store to buy vegetables for dinner.
  • After I eat breakfast I will spend exactly 45 minutes writing.
  1. We get frustrated thinking how long it will take to achieve automaticity.

You may have heard the 21-day standard for creating a new habit. Although this guideline originated in observations made by plastic surgeon Dr. Maxwell Maltz who noticed it took around 21 days for someone to adjust to plastic surgery, and that it was approximately the same amount of time it took him to form a new habit, this observation has been adapted and distorted into a hard and fast 21-day rule.

The length of time it takes to achieve automaticity in habits vary by difficulty. Common sense should tell you that a habit of drinking a glass of water every morning is going to be much easier than developing a 2,000 word per day writing schedule from scratch.

But, as this habit research shows, regardless of how challenging your habit is the greatest gains in automaticity occur during the opening weeks. After that gains taper off in an asymptotic curve.

While the habit won’t be fully engrained after a few weeks of crushing it, most of the heavy lifting will be behind you.

  1. We get hung-up on thinking it’s all-or-nothing.

I get the appeal in going all-or-nothing when it comes to our goals. The allure is understandable—we make a goal and decide that we will move heaven and earth to make it come to fruition. Moving forward we expect perfection and nothing less.

However, you probably already know what follows.

We miss one day. Stumble even just a little bit. With our perfect streak ruined, our confidence wavers and we hurtle into a serious case of “well, screw this.”

Long term habit formation isn’t predicated on being perfect. Those successful in building habits in the long term don’t nail it 100 percent of the time. Being human, like the rest of us, they had their misses, the difference being only that they were quick to get back on board.

Don’t take the occasional miss personally. Look at it this way: there are days where you forget to brush your teeth, but that doesn’t mean you are going to forego tooth brushing altogether.

In Summary

At the end of the day habit-formation comes down to experimentation. It requires you to have the patience to see what works best for your particular habit in your set of circumstances.

Avoid some of the above common habit-formation mistakes and grind your way to establishing the habits that will get you the life you want.

A version of this article originally appeared at YourWorkoutBook.com under “How to Make Working Out a Habit.”

Olivier Poirier-Leroy is an athlete, entrepreneur and writer. He writes over at YourWorkoutBook.com about habit formation and strength training.

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