Have You Hit a Habit Fork-in-the-Road?

"Sow an act and you reap a habit. Sow a habit and you reap a character. Sow a character and you reap a destiny." —Charles Reade

Habits fascinate me. Good habits, bad habits, OCD habits. Habitual ways we cope with stress, the micro-habits that end up defining our lives, and the energizing feeling of a "good" habit starting to gain momentum.

Habits can feel almost involuntary when deeply ingrained, and yet they are something that we do have the direct power to change, IF we can find the willpower and the systems to do it.

This personal challenge to ourselves—to change a bad habit or develop a new one—can be frustrating and deeply rewarding, and often requires an immense amount of focus and follow-through. So why bother?

Because the trenches of habit formation are the bedrock of big goals and massive changes and the overall quality of our lives—habits of thought, habits of daily routine, and the habits that shape our commitment to what matters most.

A Primer on Habits and Willpower

There are countless books and articles on habit formation. Some key foundational principles from a few of my favorite authors:

Kelly McGonical on Willpower

From Kelly McGonical's cornerstone book The Willpower Instinct: How Self-Control Works, Why it Matters and How You Can Get More of It:

  • Willpower is a mind-body response, not a virtue. It is a biological function that can be improved through mindfulness, exercise, nutrition, and sleep.
  • Willpower is not an unlimited resource. Too much self-control can actually be bad for your health.
  • Temptation and stress hijack the brain's systems of self-control, but the brain can be trained for greater willpower
  • Guilt and shame over your setbacks lead to giving in again, but self-forgiveness and self-compassion boost self-control.
  • Giving up control is sometimes the only way to gain self-control.
  • Willpower failures are contagious--you can catch the desire to overspend or overeat from your friends­­--but you can also catch self-control from the right role models.

Martha Beck on Mini-Wins

Martha Beck's book, The 4-Day Win revolutionized how I think about goals related fitness and nutrition—particularly the study she cites that just the idea of a diet causes people to gain weight, and her emphasis on building tiny wins, four days at a time.

Beck also introduces the personality dichotomies that often show-up when we set our mind to something: The Dictator, The Wild Child and The Watcher.

Set goals that are too strict (enforced by The Dictator) and you'll soon find yourself hijacked and thwarted at every step by The Wild Child's rebellious ways. Diet? Pfft, not before I eat these ten cookies!!! The more often we can take on the role of Watcher, identifying the mental tug-of-war that often accompanies the early days of a new habit, the better off we will be.

Leo Babauta on Keeping Things Simple

Leo Babauta published a fantastic post, Sticking to a Habit: The Definitive Guide. His key tips:

  • One habit at a time
  • A tiny habit
  • Once a day
  • Focus on starting
  • Enjoy doing it (and praise yourself)
  • Watch your thoughts
  • Don't miss two straight days
  • Be accountable

If you like the principles in this one, check out a few of his other habit-related posts: The Four Habits that Form Habits and The Seven Habits of Calmness.

The Habit Formation Fork-in-the-Road

All is usually well in the first few days of habit-building, then a habit tends to either take off on a momentum hot-air balloon, or stalls due to lack of excitement and/or lowered willpower reserves. We wonder if it's really worth sticking to anymore, and if so, how. 

Someone posted in our Make Sh*t Happen group about whether it's better to try to force creativity (and accept the feeling that something sub-par may result) or whether we should give ourselves permission to accomplish less (or at least less regularly). Instead of rigid targets, should we just let our creativity flow more freely, unboxed by expectations, goals or parameters?

I've been grappling with a similar question when it comes to writing. Long after I realized "I write when I'm inspired!" was no longer working, I set a goal to write for at least 15 minutes a day this year, inspired by Penelope Trunk's How to Write About Your Life workshop. It was time to stop whining and crack the discipline whip.

The wake-up call from Penelope's course that snapped me out of my excuses came when she said, "Move past being scared. All the great writers are scared, otherwise you are writing shit." Then she added, "You're not special because you have nothing to say or too much to say. WRITE."

On the subject of goals in general, Penelope said: 

"Don’t ask yourself to have more self­-discipline. The act of writing every day is very similar to losing weight. You have to plan your whole day and make sure you get your most important thing done. Structure your day accordingly. Don't let yourself do anything else. We have a very finite amount of self­-discipline. The more we ask of ourselves, the more it falls apart."

Thus, there are two main roads to take when building a habit: 

  • Fork 1: don't "force" creativity or habit formation and just let things flow when you feel the energy
  • Fork 2: make it a regular practice (like working out) and accept that some days are good, some are crap, but the success is in doing it at all.

Developing a new habit is a highly personal process. Sure, there are many proven methods known to work for the majority, but you will have to experiment with what works best for you.

If forming a new habit were easy, you would likely be doing it already! So accept that it is meant to be a challenge, and figure out how you can support yourself in that challenge (not beat yourself up at every turn).

3 places to look when you find yourself stuck

Here are a few questions to help structure the habit-building process in a way that works for you:

1) Structure vs. Spontaneity: Where do you thrive most?

  • Are you someone who generally has too much structure in your life, to the point of overwhelm and a feeling of impossibly high standards to meet? Is the Dictator running the show to the detriment of actual consistency and success?
  • Or are you someone ruled by your "Wild Child" who could benefit from a little more discipline, accountability and follow-through?
  • Does your creativity thrive in bursts, in regular intervals or a combination of both?

If you know you love structure: how can you streamline the many systems you probably already have set-up?

If you know you love freedom: how can you allow for more spontaneity while still forming the habit(s) you desire?

2) What is your bigger goal?

  • Is your goal to develop a regular practice of something (for me: writing, yoga, meditation and exercise are things I want in my life no matter what)?
  • Is it to enjoy the time you spend on this habit (or the benefits you receive from it), no matter the outcome?
  • Or to create a discrete project (i.e. a book) or to reach a specific goal (i.e. run a marathon)?

If your goal is the regular practice: commit to a little bit each day, or a certain interval per week.

If it is to build or do something specific: you may work better by scheduling big blocks of designated habit time. When I was working full-time, I used to reserve Sundays for working on the Life After College blog and book—this allowed me to give myself a pass during the week, knowing I was often exhausted by the time I got home and a creative vegetable from about 4 p.m. on.

3) What system(s) will help you build on your successes?

  • Are you someone who benefits from working with someone else on your goals?
  • Are you motivated by checking something off a list or in an app?
  • Or are you an "all or nothing" habit-former who finds that, as Gay Hedricks puts it, "We are either 100% committed or not at all."

I am always more successful with habit formation when I can track what I am doing.

Lately I've been loving AskMeEvery.com (h/t Elisa), which will send you an email at the end of every day with a question you create. Reply with your report, and track adherence over time.

For meditation I've been using Insight Timer, set to 20 minutes each day with a journal capture at the end (thanks to Ben Casnocha for the recommendation in his post Meditation, Six Months Later).

For an accountability twist, sign-up for StickK and create a Commitment Contract that charges your credit card each time you don't hit your target, then donates your money to an organization you designate (some choose a charity they despise) after you goal contract ends.

Additional Resources

Although this post is long, I realize we've just barely scratched the surface on habit building—below are some great resources to continue your studies . . . with a giant caveat:  at the end of the day, what really matters is that you start!

If you do just three things after reading this post:

  • Set a teeny tiny small daily goal for the next four days
  • Set-up a simple tracking (and reward) system, and
  • Check-in on day 5: How do you feel? Is it working? Do you want to make any adjustments for the next 4 days?

Additional resources:

I'd love to hear from you in the comments:

What tools or tricks help you build new habits?  What do you do when you slip up or notice your willpower dwindling? And just for fun, what will you commit to for the next four days?