Habits Are Means, Not Ends.
Why do you want to form a new habit? For example, running. Why do you want to run? Is it because you love running so much? If you did, you’d be doing it already.
No, it’s because you want something. You want a result that running can provide. You want to lose weight or increase your cardiovascular fitness. Or maybe you want to get rid of some stress.
As I’ve said for many years, “Habits are solutions to recurring problems.” Our minds create habits in order to fulfill some specific physiological, social, or psychological need. The fulfillment of the need is what’s important, not the specific route you take to get there.
If someone who wanted to start a daily running habit came to me and I told them that I could help them achieve the same weight loss and health benefits by taking a new, completely safe drug, do you think they’d want to start that running habit anymore? I wouldn’t bet on it.
Nor should they. In the process of self development, it’s important to realize what’s important: our desired outcomes. We want to be healthier, happier, more successful, and so on. There are a thousand different paths to these outcomes. Michael Phelps, Lebron James, Usain Bolt, and Lionel Messi are all at the pinnacle of fitness, but each of them arrived there on a different path. One through swimming, one through basketball, one through sprinting, and one through soccer. Four paths, same destination.
This is why it’s so important to be Habit Agnostic.
At the end of the day, we try and form new habits to get results. Focus on the results. Don’t get hung up on whether you get there by bike or boat.
If you’re having a hard time running each day, do something else. Don’t try and force it. Don’t try and use silly habit hacks. There’s a reason that there’s a new habit book published every few years (hint: the approaches are wrong).
The correct approach is to keep trying out different habits until you find one that sticks. You can do this through simple trial and error, or you can approach it in an organized, systematic manner. If you want to do the latter, here’s an introduction.
Picking the right habit
To pick the right habit, it’s first important to get clear on what you want.
Step 1: Clarify your goal.
What are you trying to achieve? Are you trying to lose weight? Gain muscle? Make more money? Become famous? Become a better public speaker? Reduce your general anxiety? Sleep better? Be happier?
Whatever it is, get clear on it.
Step 2: Write out all the different ways you think a person could achieve that goal.
For example, here are a few different ways someone could achieve the goal of losing 10 pounds.
- Playing soccer a few times a week
- Playing basketball a few times a week
- Swimming laps at the pool
- Going on a run at the park 3x a week
- Peddling on an exercise bike for 30 minutes a day
- No longer eating dessert
- No longer drinking beer/alcohol
- Taking semaglutide (with doctor supervision)
- Working out with a personal trainer 3x a week
- Peloton workouts 3x a week
- Tonal workouts 3x a week
- 10,000 daily steps
- The Potato Diet
- Eating 300 fewer calories a day (calorie counting using MyFitnessPal)
Write out everything you can think of. Try to create a list of 50-100 items.
Step 3: Assess yourself.
Get clear on who you are. Be honest with yourself.
Are you an organized person? Are you social or are you more introverted?
Do you have any talents? Are any challenging mental or physical activities easy for you?
What are your favorite topics? Were you really good at any particular subjects in school?
What do your friends say you’re best at? What do you coworkers know you for?
The goal is to create a brutally honest profile of yourself (skills/talents, likes/dislikes, preferences, etc.) that you can then use to evaluate your habit options.
Step 4: Rank your options.
Take the 50-100 options you’ve come up with in step 2 and rank them. Here’s how you should score each idea.
The 4 Es of Habit
- Effective: Is it effective at achieving your desired goal?
- Easy: Is this activity / behavior easy for you to do?
- Enjoyable: Do you like this activity / behavior? Do you think it’s fun?
- Exciting: Are you excited by this activity / behavior? Is it something you want to do ASAP?
Score each idea.
For example, if you think soccer would effectively help you lose weight, give it a 4 or 5. If you think soccer is also relatively easy for you to do each week, give it a 4 or 5. If you really like playing soccer with people, give it a 4 or 5. And if you’re excited by the idea of playing soccer again, give it a 4 or 5. Add up all the scores and write it next to that idea.
Now do that for all 50-100 items in your list.
When you’re doing, rank order the items by score. The top scoring idea is the one you should try first.
Step 5: Go down the list.
Start with the top item on your list. Give it a shot.
If you have trouble doing that behavior each week, go to the next item on the list. Try that out.
If you do that behavior for a few months but just can’t make it a long term habit, go back to the list and look at the top-scoring items again. Try another one of the top-scoring ideas.
Treat this list as a menu of things that you can do that will get you to your goal and have the highest probability of turning into enjoyable, long-term habits.
If you pick the right behavior for a given goal, nothing else matters. You won’t need any habit hacks, habit tricks, habit techniques. You won’t need to make the behavior easier or add reminders to your daily schedule. You won’t need to reward yourself for doing it–the behavior (and the results) will be the reward.