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 it so hard to stick to good habits? Why is it so difficult to make consistent change? How can we have the best intentions becoming 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 head back to your day job 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.

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 rights, 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.

Focus on this!

Prevailing wisdom claims that the best way to achieve what we want in life—getting into better shape, building a successful business, relaxing more and worrying less, spending more time with friends and family—is to set specific, actionable goals.

For many years, this was how I approached my habits too. Each one was a goal to be reached. I set goals for the grades I wanted to get in school, for the weights I wanted to lift in the gym, for the profits I wanted to earn in business. I succeeded at a few, but I failed at a lot of them. Eventually, I began to realize that my results had very little to do with the goals I set and nearly everything to do with the systems I followed.

  • If you’re a coach, your goal might be to win a championship. Your system is the way you recruit players, manage your assistant coaches, and conduct practice.
  • If you’re an entrepreneur, your goal might be to build a million-dollar business. Your system is how you test product ideas, hire employees, and run marketing campaigns.
  • If you’re a musician, your goal might be to play a new piece. Your system is how often you practice, how you break down and tackle difficult measures, and your method for receiving feedback from your instructor.

Now for the interesting question: if you completely ignored your goals and focused only on your system, would you still succeed? For example, if you were a basketball coach and you ignored your goal to win a championship and focused only on what your team does at practice each day, would you still get results?

I think you would.

The goal in any sport is to finish with the best score, but it would be ridiculous to spend the whole game staring at the scoreboard. The only way to actually win is to get better each day. In the words of three-time Super Bowl winner Bill Walsh, “The score takes care of itself.” The same is true for other areas of life. If you want better results, then forget about setting goals. Focus on your system instead.

What do I mean by this? Are goals completely useless? Of course not. Goals are good for setting a direction, but systems are best for making progress. A handful of problems arise when you spend too much time thinking about your goals and not enough time designing your systems.

Problem 1: Winners and losers have the same goals!

Goal setting suffers from a serious case of survivorship bias. We concentrate on the people who end up winning—the survivors—and mistakenly assume that ambitious goals led to their success while overlooking all of the people who had the same objective but didn’t succeed.

Every Olympian wants to win a gold medal. Every candidate wants to get the job. And if successful and unsuccessful people share the same goals, then the goal cannot be what differentiates the winners from the losers. It wasn’t the goal of winning the Tour de France that propelled the British Cyclists to the top of the sport. Presumably, they had wanted to win the race every year before—just like every other professional team. The goal had always been there. It was only when they implemented a system of continuous small improvements that they achieved a different outcome.

Problem 2: Achieving a goal is only a momentary change.

Imagine you have a messy room and you set a goal to clean it. If you summon the energy to tidy up, then you will have a clean room—for now. But if you maintain the same sloppy, pack-rat habits that led to a messy room in the first place, soon you’ll be looking at a new pile of clutter and hoping for another burst of motivation. You’re left chasing the same outcome because you never changed the system behind it. You treated a symptom without addressing the cause.

Achieving a goal only changes your life for the moment. That’s the counter intuitive thing about improvement. We think we need to change our results, but the results are not the problem. What we really need to change are the systems that cause those results. When you solve problems at the results level, you only solve them temporarily. In order to improve for good, you need to solve problems at the systems level. Fix the inputs and the outputs will fix themselves.

Problem 3: Goals restrict your happiness.

The implicit assumption behind any goal is this: “Once I reach my goal, then I’ll be happy.” The problem with a goals-first mentality is that you’re continually putting happiness off until the next milestone. I’ve slipped into this trap so many times I’ve lost count. For years, happiness was always something for my future self to enjoy.

Furthermore, goals create an “either-or” conflict: either you achieve your goal and are successful or you fail and you are a disappointment. You mentally box yourself into a narrow version of happiness. This is misguided. It is unlikely that your actual path through life will match the exact journey you had in mind when you set out. It makes no sense to restrict your satisfaction to one scenario when there are many paths to success.

A systems-first mentality provides the antidote. When you fall in love with the process rather than the product, you don’t have to wait to give yourself permission to be happy. You can be satisfied anytime your system is running. And a system can be successful in many different forms, not just the one you first envision.

Problem 4: Goals are at odds with long-term progress!

Finally, a goal-oriented mind-set can create a “yo-yo” effect. Many runners work hard for months, but as soon as they cross the finish line, they stop training. The race is no longer there to motivate them. When all of your hard work is focused on a particular goal, what is left to push you forward after you achieve it? This is why many people find themselves reverting to their old habits after accomplishing a goal.

The purpose of setting goals is to win the game. The purpose of building systems is to continue playing the game. True long-term thinking is goal-less thinking. It’s not about any single accomplishment. It is about the cycle of endless refinement and continuous improvement. Ultimately, it is your commitment to the process that will determine your progress.

Fall in love with systems

None of this is to say that goals are useless. However, I’ve found that goals are good for planning your progress and systems are good for actually making progress.

Goals can provide direction and even push you forward in the short-term, but eventually a well-designed system will always win. Having a system is what matters. Committing to the process is what makes the difference.

Do the painful things first

Behavioral scientists have discovered that one of the most effective ways to create an enjoyable experience is to stack the painful parts of the experience early in the process. Psychologically, we prefer experiences that improve over time. That means it’s better for the annoying parts of a purchase to happen early in the experience. Furthermore, we don’t enjoy it when painful experiences are drawn out or repeated.

If you’re a professional service provider (lawyer, insurance agent, freelancer, etc.) it is better to give the bad news to your clients first and finish with the good news. Clients will remember an experience more favorably if you start weak but finish on a high note, rather than starting strong and ending poorly.

If you can make a customer experience more delightful, why not make your life experiences more delightful? How can you take advantage of the way your brain processes painful and annoying experiences, and use that knowledge to boost happiness and live a better life?

To boost happiness, stack the pain!

A delightful customer experience combines the painful experiences into a single segment that occurs early in the process and then improves over time. If you want to increase your happiness and have a more delightful day, you can do the same thing.

Here is an example…

On a normal day, you might have something annoying or painful to do (like paying the bills). And you also might have something good happen to you (like a friend sending you a thoughtful email).

If you read the email on your lunch break and then pay the bills when you get home from work, you will remember your day as going from a good experience to a bad experience. That’s the opposite of what you want.

However, if you decide to stack the pain early in your day — for example, if you pay your bills in the morning before you go to work and then read the email from your friend on your lunch break — you will remember your day as going from bad to good. As a result, you’ll feel happier because your brain likes it when experiences improve as time goes on.

Stacking the pain for the long-term

It’s easy to worry about making the right choices with your life. However, if you choose to pursue things where the pain of the experience is largely in the beginning — like building a business, losing weight, or creating art — then you will tend to look back on those experiences fondly because they improve over time.

By comparison, doing things like trying to beat the stock market or become a professional gambler are very inconsistent. They can provide big wins, but they can also provide big losses at any time. The pain isn’t necessarily in the beginning. Because of this, these experiences are less likely to make you happy over the long-run.

Of course, that can be easy to forget when you’re struggling to succeed with other goals. In the beginning, it can be easy to feel like, “Building a business is so hard, why shouldn’t I try to beat the stock market?”

Understanding this difference can help you stay on track and continue to master your habits even when the day-to-day grind gets frustrating.

  • It might be painful now to put in the work required to get in shape or become a better athlete, but as your skills improve over time you’ll remember the experience as a positive one.
  • It might be painful now to create bad art, but as you master your craft and your work gets better you’ll remember the experience as a positive one.
  • It might be painful now to battle through the uncertain early years of entrepreneurship, but as you learn to build a stable business you’ll remember the experience as a positive one.

Choosing to front-load pain and discomfort isn’t just a choice that applies to daily tasks and errands. It can also be used to nudge you toward the goals you have that you tend to procrastinate on.

Where to go from here?

If your anything like me, you want to get to the end of your life and remember it as being joyful and happy. Given what we know about behavioral psychology, we are more likely to remember our lives as happy if they improve over time.

This is one reason why working through the pain of learning new skills for your job, training becoming stronger and healthier, and putting in the time required to master your craft is worthwhile. In the beginning, you may feel stupid while learning a new skill or frustrated while sacrificing current pleasure for a future payoff, but when you make the choice to go through the pain early, you get to enjoy the benefit of delight later on.

The path to a delightful life looks a lot like the path to a delightful customer experience. It starts off with a few painful experiences and improves over time. Using this strategy allows you to move toward happiness even when there are annoying or painful things you have to get done.

All the more reason to stop procrastinating, get the bad experiences out of the way early, and take on the hard stuff now.


I hope you liked the content about adhering to good habits?

If you have any questions or suggestions, please leave them in the comments!

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