If you are anything like me, I get an amazing feeling of strength, accomplishment and pride when I have mastered a new habit. I exercised will power and determination and now my new productive habit is sealed into my being forever! Go me! Right? Well- may be and may be not. We’ve all had those moments when we think a new habit we’ve been working on has taken root and nothing can bring it down only to wake up days, weeks or even months later to find ourselves back at our former status quo, scratching our heads and wondering what went wrong. Why the heck did we fail?
It is a real simple reason, and I feel almost silly writing about it because it is so obvious.
The number one reason we quit habits is because we don’t enjoy them.
Yes, I know. Thank you captain obvious. Wait, here comes the science part!
Earlier this year a study came out that illustrated this by studying work “burnout”. The researchers asked 154 college students to complete a series of word puzzles. Depending on who you are, “word puzzles” might elicit an eye roll and a heavy sigh of frustration or it might make you clap your hands with excitement and anticipation. Before the students were given the puzzle, the researchers asked, “How enjoyable do you think this task will be?” This was to record the student’s feelings toward the puzzle.
As one can predict, the students that stated they thought they would enjoy the word puzzle performed better at solving the puzzle than those that said they didn’t think the activity would be enjoyable. What’s even more interesting is what happened after the puzzles. The researchers had the students squeeze a grip exerciser to test their energy level. The students that enjoyed completing the puzzles were less fatigued and could also squeeze the grip for a longer period of time than the students that didn’t enjoy the puzzles.
So- what does this mean to you and me?
Well, this is what one of the researchers, Paul O’Keefe, said regarding the experiment; “Engaging in personally interesting activities not only improves performance, but also creates an energized experience that allows people to persist when persisting would otherwise cause them to burn out."
In other words, if you do activities you enjoy, not only do you do the activity better and feel better when you are doing the activity, you also continue to do the activity even when fatigue sets in and you are faced with possible burnout.
Bottom line: Do what you love to do if you want a habit to stick. This is simple but not easy because more often than not there are habits you know you need to establish but they are far from fun and enjoyable.
Say for example you want to start a morning jogging routine because you want to improve your cardiovascular health. If you are being completely honest with yourself, you could name off more than 2 dozen things you would rather do and I wouldn’t be surprised if root canal would top the list (hey, at least you can lay down during the procedure). So how do you convince yourself to get out of bed to jog each morning? Typically you would tell yourself that is doesn’t matter whether or not you enjoy jogging because you have determination and will power so you can do anything you set your mind to! So you wake up early each morning and push yourself mile by excruciating mile while repeating over and over in your head how stupid jogging is, how tired you are and how you wish you could have just stayed in bed. You continue on this way until eventually the willpower and determination are lost and you eventually give up. Feeling inspired yet? (Yes, I am being sarcastic.)
To better illustrate how this works, I give you the ingenious Habit Success Matrix courtesy of Max Ogles.
To give you an idea how this works lets go back to the jogging scenario. I want to establish jogging as a habit but “I don’t enjoy this behavior” and I currently “don’t do this behavior” so it is going to be “difficult to change”. Say I decide to pick a different activity to improve my cardiovascular fitness like Spinning. I know “I enjoy this behavior” because I used to do it and loved it, but I currently “don’t do this behavior”. According to the matrix it will be “easy to change”. And then once I am actually “doing this behavior” and going to Spin classes, it will become a habit that will be “easy to maintain”
So what the heck do you do if you are trying out a behavior that you hate and currently don’t do?
2 Steps to Forming a Habit:
Before you decide to start a new habit like an exercise routine, practicing a sport, or even practicing an instrument you must do some honest soul searching and ask yourself if this is something you think you will truly enjoy. So often we read magazines, see infomercials or talk to a friend that lead us to believe they have found the “secret sauce” when in fact they have found their secret sauce. Chances are what worked for one person won’t work for another because we all enjoy different things. When you are uncertain whether or not you will enjoy a new habit look to your past experiences to give a clue. If the habit you are considering taking up is pretty similar to something you loved to do before, there is a good chance that you will enjoy the new habit or activity.
Lower you expectations. As Leo Babauta says, "Make it so easy you can't say no”. Reduce the new habit into it’s simplest of actions so that success is pretty much a guarantee. Going back to the jogging example, instead of jogging for 5 miles every morning, I could reduce this to jogging 2 times a week for a quarter of a mile or may be even 1 time a week for a quarter of a mile. Once the habit is being practiced it is much easier to move it to the “easy to maintain” box because I might actually start to like it. Then once I like it I can begin to increase the intensity and/or frequency.
My question to you is where are you right now on this matrix? May be you are struggling with a habit you really don’t enjoy but you are trudging through and relying on will power. STOP RIGHT THERE! Is there a different habit you might be able to do that will get you the same result? A habit you might possibly enjoy more than the one you are currently trying to maintain? Is there a way you might possible lower your expectations of your habit so that success is guaranteed? I challenge you to take a look at this. Success is really not that far away, but you have to be honest with yourself.
Life is too short to do things you hate. In the famous line from the movie Little Miss Sunshine, “Do what you love and fuck the rest”.