Just about all of us are interested in habits — whether because we want to change one of our own or help someone else change theirs.
But to change habits, it’s important to understand how they work. People make mistakes about the nature of habits, and that makes it harder to tackle them.
Here's what to keep in mind:
1. Repetition isn’t enough to build a habit. People assume that if they repeat a behavior, it becomes a habit. Maybe, but maybe not. I’ve heard from many people who trained for a marathon, with the thought that this would make them a regular exerciser, but then after the marathon, they never ran again. Or they do a month-long sugar detox, but go right back to sugar when the month is over. In both these cases, the danger of the finish line explains why a habit wasn’t formed. Beware the finish line! It’s hard to start over, so don’t allow yourself to stop.
2. Don’t beat yourself up. Although some people assume that whipping up feelings of guilt or shame will help them stick to their good habits, the opposite is true. People who feel less guilt and show compassion toward themselves are better able to regain self-control. People who feel deeply guilty and full of self-blame struggle more.
3. Trying to resist temptation? Some people do better giving it up altogether; some when they indulge in moderation. I often hear people say, “Indulge with moderation, live a little, don’t be too hard on yourself.” This approach works well for Moderators. But I’m a hardcore Abstainer, and for me, abstaining altogether is easier. It sounds rigid and difficult, but for me it’s not. As my sister the sage told me when she gave up her beloved french fries, “I tell myself, ‘Now I’m free from french fries.'” A friend had to stop playing the word-game app Ruzzle entirely, because she couldn’t play just a little.
4. Don’t expect to be motivated by consequences. People make the mistake of thinking that if consequences are dire enough, they’ll change a habit. Nope. Consequences, without the proper approach to changing a habit, often fail to move people to change. For instance, one-third to one-half of U.S. patients don’t take medicine prescribed for a chronic illness, including serious conditions such as diabetes, heart disease, even leprosy.
5. The same strategies don’t work for everyone. The sad fact is, there’s no magical, one-size-fits-all approach that will work for everyone. When it comes to habits, people are very different. So it’s not really useful to copy what Steve Jobs did, or what worked for your sister. We can get ideas from each other, and we definitely pass habits back and forth (that’s the Strategy of Other People), but we have to figure out what works for us. The Strategy of Accountability is crucial for an Obliger; it’s counter-productive for a Rebel, who makes more progress with the Strategy of Identity. A Lark does better scheduling an important habit for the morning, but that might not be true for an Owl.
We won’t make ourselves more creative and productive by copying other people’s habits, even the habits of geniuses; we must know our own nature, and what habits serve us best.