Motivation is effective in the short term. If you make a new goal, you’ll probably be able to find the drive to work on it for a week or two. If the objective is extremely important to you, your motivation may last for up to a month. However, motivation wanes. You’ll need more than motivation if your objective is more than a month or two away. You’ll need to develop some habits.
Habit-forming techniques are beneficial because they convert short-term incentives into something more lasting. You can stabilise that incentive into systematic output if you invest in consistent routines with triggers, rewards, and penalties.
The Gospel of Habit Change
People who have never tried it before becoming evangelising converts as they migrate from motivated bursts to steady habits. My friend has recently begun to form habits. He moved from struggling to attend to the gym on a regular basis to using intricately constructed systems to manage dozens of habits. Many bloggers I know rely on habit formation to grow their audiences. Part of this is due to the fact that habits are a popular topic. But I believe the true reason is that the tactics are so effective that people feel forced to write about them on a blog.
I know because I used to be one of them. I moved from struggling to stick to simple goals to managing my eating, exercising, reading, sleeping, productivity, and other behaviours. Outsiders probably thought I was insane, but it was just the first time in my life that I had the opportunity to do it. In the medium term, habits are effective. For well over a decade, I’ve been employing habit-changing techniques. If the basic assumption of habits is that it takes a few months to permanently stabilise a habit, I should have had plenty of time to permanently stabilise dozens, if not hundreds, of habits. That, however, has not occurred.
Instead, looking back over the last 10 years of working with habits, I’ve found that I’ve spent significantly more time resuming habits than building new ones. Only two things come to mind that have been somewhat constant: vegetarianism (now pescetarianism) and weekly/daily goals. Some have lasted a long time: my gym-going habit lasted several years without interruption before I had to renew it. I have to restart several others, such as morning rituals, every few months.
What’s going on? After all, the promise of habits is that a small initial investment in the effort can result in a system that is always steady. Why do some behaviours require constant upkeep to keep going? Action necessitates two types of effort.
My explanation is that all action takes two types of effort to complete. An effort that is dependent on the action, as well as an effort to decide whether or not to carry out the activity. Habits can help with the first, but the major reason they succeed is that they eliminate the second.
Let’s pretend you want to read a book per week and decide to make it a habit. In this example, you decide that in order to reach your objective, you must read at least fifty pages per day. You put in these two types of effort every time you read the book. Then there’s the reading effort. Depending on how difficult the book is, this could take a lot of work or none at all. Consider the distinction between a quantum physics textbook and a Harry Potter novel to understand why.
However, if you intend to read a book that would need work, there will be a secondary cost of effort. This is the amount of effort necessary to overcome the desire to postpone and begin reading the book. If you’ve ever been fatigued after a day of doing nothing, you know how much effort it takes.
Habits appear to lower these two costs in different ways, in my experience:
Habits can lower the intrinsic cost by improving your performance. Reading becomes easier as you progress through more challenging texts, requiring less energy.
Habits lower decision costs by removing the uncertainty about when and how to conduct an activity. If you read fifty pages every day at lunch for three months, you’ll automatically begin reading during your next lunch break without having to decide whether or not to do so.
The second cost decrease is often significantly bigger than the first for many tasks. For example, flossing hasn’t become any simpler the hundredth time I’ve done it, but I’ve stopped second-guessing myself.
Habits can be changed.
This concept of two sorts of effort involved in behaviours explains a lot of my own habits and experience. Namely:
- Not all habits are created equally easily. This makes sense because some involve more intrinsic effort, resulting in higher intrinsic costs as well as higher choice costs.
- You can’t create an endless amount of habits. This makes logical because you still have to pay the intrinsic effort even if you reduce the decision effort. That means you can establish a lot of inherently simple habits (like flossing), but not a lot of genuinely tough behaviours (like reading boring books).
The majority of behaviours are only metastable. In physics, metastability refers to a condition of affairs that is stable but can be disrupted by minor perturbations. A pendulum, for example, has two stable points: one at the bottom with the weight and one at the top with the weight properly balanced. Except that if pushed little, the one at the bottom will return to the bottom, whilst the one perfectly balanced at the top will never return after a slight push.
This concept of metastability is consistent with my observations of how few habits have a long lifespan. A temporary lifestyle change, such as a vacation, illness, relocation, or overtime work, will inevitably break the habit. These shocks are often enough to interrupt a habit, increase the choice cost, and make the practice no longer automatic when you return to it.
How to Handle Long-Term Habits
Because of this metastability, the most crucial positions to consider when forming a habit are during potential interruptions. If you have to temporarily break a habit, your main aim should be to re-establish it as soon as the interruption has passed.
Even better if you can avoid breaking the habit entirely by developing a replacement habit. When you’re short on time, this could mean reading five pages instead of fifty or doing a home workout instead of going to the gym while travelling.
Which habits do you need to restart on a regular basis? What motivates you to disrupt the pattern? Which of your behaviours have you kept up for years without fail? What keeps them from deteriorating? Leave a comment with your ideas.