Why is it So Hard to Stick to Good Habits?

Have you ever set out with the goal of actually sticking to a new behavior … only to find yourself not doing it at all one week later?

I know I have.

Why is so hard to form good habits? Why is it so difficult to make consistent change? How can we have the best intentions to become better, and yet still see so little progress?

And most importantly, is there anything we can do about it?

Your Life Goals are Not Your Habits

Your audacious life goals are fabulous. We’re proud of you for having them. But it’s possible that those goals are designed to distract you from the thing that’s really frightening you—the shift in daily habits that would mean a re–invention of how you see yourself.
— Seth Godin

We all have hopes and dreams (if you don’t, you’re probably not the type of person who would be reading this article).

And most of the time, we have at least a general sense of what those goals are: the way we want our bodies to look and the good health we want to enjoy, the respect we want to receive from our peers and the important work we want to create, the relationships we want with our family and friends and the love we want to share.

Overall, this is a good thing. It’s nice to know what you want and having goals gives you a sense of direction and purpose. However, there is one way that your hopes and dreams actually sabotage you from becoming better: your desires can easily lure you into biting off more than you can chew.

You know exactly what I mean…

  • You get inspired by The Biggest Loser, head to the gym, bust your butt to the point of exhaustion, and take the next three months off to recover.
  • You finally get that urge to write your book, write all day over the weekend, and then go back to work on Monday and never come back to it.
  • You’re motivated by your friend’s stories of traveling to new countries, so you start to plan your own around–the–world trip, only to end up overwhelmed by all the details and stay at home.

Too often, we let our motivations and desires drive us into a frenzy as we try to solve our entire problem at once instead of starting a small, new routine.

I know, I know. It’s not nearly as sexy as saying you lost 30 pounds in 3 months. But the truth is this: the dreams that you have are very different from the actions that will get you there.

So how do we balance our desire to make life–changing transformations with the need to build small, sustainable habits?

I’m glad you asked.

Good Habits: Dream Big, But Start Small

If you’re serious about making real change — in other words, if you’re serious about doing things better than you are now — then you have to start small.

Imagine the typical habits, good or bad: Brushing your teeth. Putting your seatbelt on. Biting your nails.

These actions are small enough that you don’t even think about them. You simply do them automatically. They are tiny actions that become consistent patterns.

Wouldn’t it make sense that if we wanted to form new habits, the best way to start would be to make tiny changes that our brain could quickly learn and automatically repeat?

What if you started thinking of your life goals, not as big, audacious things that you can only achieve when the time is right or when you have better resources or when you finally catch your big break … but instead as tiny, daily behaviors that are repeated until success becomes inevitable?

What if losing 50 pounds wasn’t dependent on a researcher discovering the perfect diet or you finding a superhuman dose of willpower, but hinged on a series of tiny habits that you could always control? Habits like walking for 20 minutes per day, drinking 8 glasses of water per day, eating two meals instead of three.

I think the following quote from BJ Fogg, a professor at Stanford, sums this idea up nicely.

If you plant the right seed in the right spot, it will grow without further coaxing.

I believe this is the best metaphor for creating habits.

The “right seed” is the tiny behavior that you choose. The “right spot” is the sequencing — what it comes after. The “coaxing” part is amping up motivation, which I think has nothing to do with creating habits. In fact, focusing on motivation as the key to habits is exactly wrong.

Let me be more explicit: If you pick the right small behavior and sequence it right, then you won’t have to motivate yourself to have it grow. It will just happen naturally, like a good seed planted in a good spot.
—BJ Fogg, founder of Tiny Habits

How great is that?

The typical approach is to dive into the deep end as soon as you get a dose of motivation, only to fail quickly and wish you had more willpower as your new habit drowns. The new approach is to wade into the shallow water, slowly going deeper until you reach the point where you can swim whether you’re motivated or not.

Focus on Lifestyle, Not Life–Changing

Too often we get obsessed with making life–changing transformations.

  • Losing 50 pounds would be life–changing, drinking 8 glasses of water per day is a new type of lifestyle.
  • Publishing your first book would be life–changing, emailing a new book agent each day is a new type of lifestyle.
  • Running a marathon would be life–changing, running 3 days per week is a new type of lifestyle.
  • Earning an extra $20,000 each year would be life–changing, working an extra 5 hours per week as a freelancer is a new type of lifestyle.
  • Squatting 100 more pounds would be life–changing, squatting 3 days per week is a new type of lifestyle.

Do you see the difference?

Life goals are good to have because they provide direction, but they can also trick you into taking on more than you can handle. Daily habits — tiny routines that are repeatable — are what make big dreams a reality.

9 Comments

  1. Congratulations James for your content today, spectacular motivation to understand behavior. Especially this part ‘to dive into deep end’, generally a great work!

    • Thiago — first of all, thanks for reading. It’s great to have you as part of the community here.

      And, of course, thanks for the compliment. I’ll do my best to keep the good stuff coming your way.

  2. Another great one,

    I absolutely agree with starting out small, in my mind – it’s either results later, or no results fast.

    But what I find very interesting to explore, is the fact that even knowing all this, it’s actually hard to start small, as we are conditioned to want results NOW.

    I guess the great skills of our modern marketers are also to blame here (to some extent). When being bombarded with messages “Buy XYZ product and fix your whole life in 30 – 90 days”, it seems ridiculous to take the slow approach and spend 5 years for the same result. The difference, of course, is that the slow approach works and the fast one will just make us feel better for “doing something”.

    Another thing I’ve noticed is the negative effect of getting too much information on the subject. Let’s take diet – at it’s core, its rather easy – eat healthy food, not too much, avoid sugar/alcohol, drink enough water. Just following this easy pattern can get us in a pretty good shape (not like a fitness model, but good).

    But then we read, something like “New research shows that blueberries and spinach have a positive effect on weight-loss”, then its “Studies show the negative effects of carbs/fat”, then its “Why you must eat X/69+LogY+Z*23 grams of protein daily”. And, because these studies are so “ground-breaking”, we start modifying whatever was working. Unfortunately if we subscribe to fitness blogs and alike, information like this comes daily/weekly and we never settle for a comfortable routine. Or, even worse, we read so much conflicting information just to get overwhelmed and never get started. <<<– Been there, done that :/

    On a side note,

    There is a rather cool study, that monitored brain activity when thinking about the future. Turns out, when we think of doing something sometime in future same brain sections work as when we think about someone else doing it. That is, in our minds, our future-self is "someone else". So no wonder we so eager to plan a zillion things to do – unconsciously we think that someone else will need to do all those things.

    Okay, I'm ending my rant now :)

    Cheers

    • Darius, my man. Thank you so much for leaving such a thoughtful comment. We have many brilliant members in our community and comments like this one are valuable for everyone.

      You bring up many interesting problems and I’m going to spend some time thinking about how I can provide information to solve at least a few of them. Thanks again.

      • Hey James,

        My pleasure. This is a topic I’ve been figuring out for awhile now.

        Identifying issues are not that difficult, but finding solutions is. And the more I dig into, the more it seems that it’s bound to be an uphill battle (simply because of how the computer on our shoulders is wired).

        Would be really interesting to hear your (and of course everyone else’s from the community) thoughts on the issues.

        Cheers

  3. You mention BJ Fogg….I have just completed one week of his
    3 Tiny Habits Program. It is nearly the same thing you are talking about:
    starting small….really, really small. I think the Universe is
    motivating me…on-line!

  4. i think ultimately the process should look like this:

    “a wish will turn into a goal. a goal into a habbit. a habbit into a steady non-negotiable action. this action will turn into a positive addiction.”

    [ translated from: "Aus einem Wunsch wird ein Ziel. Aus dem Ziel eine Gewohnheit. Aus der Gewohnheit eine nicht-verhandelbare, regelmäßige Handlung. Aus dieser Handlung wird eine positive Sucht." http://www.blatternet.de/009-nicht-verhandelbare-handlungen/ ]

    it always sounds so easy…

    guess the real mastermind acts.

  5. Hey James, I think that you covered this topic pretty good. I too am currently am on the same boat as everyone else. I myself personally have planned to start taking action on many numerous things only to find myself in the exact same place where I was a month ago when i started making them! I myself, am 23 years old, and its around this time I’m realizing to take quick action now to have a good and successful future, from going to the gym, enrolling in college “haven’t done yet” and using everyday I can to be as productive as possible, as a saying goes “success is the sum of small efforts repeated day in and day out.”

    I’ve always somewhat been a scientific person, not necessarily a nerd or geek, but as someone who views things very scientifically, having just watched a recent documentary about the brain, gave me an insight of just how complex the brain really is, and how we even develop consciousness and how we can train it to do almost anything we can think of. I have always taken into consideration the quote, “we see things in the world not as they are, but as who we are”.

    Getting back on topic, I have always thought that changing your habits is more of a mental thing rather than physical. I would always tell myself to make sacrifices and stop procrastinating and stay focused to get things done the next day, but never actually get around to ever doing it. Taking that into consideration, Would you say laziness, not willing to make sacrifices and procrastination play a key role in changing your habits? and that maybe, just maybe, if we just put all our commitment and focus mentally in this one thing, that we may actually have a chance of not only changing our daily habits instantly, but in turn contribute to better and healthier choice making and commitment in the future? Or could we conclude that taking big steps right away, will lead to slower if not any progression even if we try and tell ourselves to stay focused and committed?

    Thanks, Kris.

  6. It’s a relief to read your work because it paints a different picture on ways to improve oneself. I still have lots of questions about starting a workout. I find it very difficult.

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