If you aren’t easily forming habits, you have the wrong approach

If you aren’t easily forming habits

Forming habits isn’t hard.

In fact, it’s easy when you pick the right behaviors.

The problem is that picking the right behaviors requires a good deal of thought and self-awareness. If you don’t understand the ins and outs of your own mind, it can be tough to figure out what will work for you and what won’t.

Over the past 15 years, I’ve studied habit formation from a variety of different perspectives, and I’ve always been a bit baffled why so much focus is put on hacks, tips, and formulas. Everyone is dead set on coming up with the right way to force themselves to do unpleasant but beneficial things. We all know someone who decides they should be running every day, even though they hate it, and they want to find some formula or trick that will get them to automatically go on a jog each afternoon.

Unfortunately, this approach is doomed to failure. It’s nearly impossible to get yourself to do something you hate.

Sure, you may be able to do something you dislike for a week or two (or three). But, inevitably, your brain will make you stop. Discomfort and pain are signals from your brain that you’re doing something it deems harmful, and fighting against your brain is a fruitless task. You’re not going to win.

Instead, you should be working with your brain–doing things that it enjoys.

This is the essence of habit formation: finding things that you enjoy that will achieve your goals.

So instead of focusing on 4 step methods for making unpleasant things more likely to stick, you should instead be zooming out and thinking about all the different ways you can achieve your desires.

Let’s say that you’re trying to make a habit out of going to the gym, but you just can’t get it to stick. The first question you should ask is: what am I trying to accomplish by going to the gym?

Are you trying to become healthier? Are you trying to decrease your cardiovascular risk? Are you trying to get bigger and more muscular so that you can be more attractive on Bumble?

Get clear about your reason. Understand your why. Once you’ve identified your goal, it’s time to think of all the different things you can do to achieve it. Going to the gym is only one path to a healthier life with lower cardiovascular risk. Here are some others:

  • Eating a healthy diet (Mediterranean, etc.)

  • Running

  • Walking

  • Playing club soccer

  • Playing pickup basketball

  • Swimming

  • Going to a doctor and getting medication (statin, semaglutide, ezetimibe, etc.)

  • Playing tennis with a friend

  • Intermittent fasting

  • Bike riding

  • Etc.

Going to the gym is obviously not working for you, so you should probably give one of these other behaviors a shot. Pick the one that you think would be most enjoyable. That’s the behavior that you’re going to turn into a habit.

In my case, I’d choose either bike riding or playing tennis. I’d have no problem going on a daily 30 or 45 minute bike ride or playing a few games of tennis with a friend. Both of those things would get my heart pumping and would help me lose weight and become healthier. And both of them are things I actually enjoy. I wouldn’t need to use 4 step habit formulas or hacks to get them to stick.

Pick the right behavior for your goals and the habit part becomes easy.

Any time you find yourself struggling with a habit, take some time and zoom out. Ask yourself what you’re trying to accomplish and come up with some other ways of getting the same result. This will solve all your habit issues.

To recap:

Identify your goal → List out behaviors that can accomplish your goal → Choose your favorite one → Do it → Repeat the process if the chosen behavior doesn’t stick

But how do I know which behavior I should choose?

That’s a good question. In general, I tell people to choose their favorite behavior–but not everyone can immediately identify a favorite. They get stuck. Picking the right behavior requires thought and self awareness. You have to be in touch with your feelings, have an accurate picture of your strengths and weaknesses, and understand your likes and dislikes. This is where all the hard work happens, and I don’t have a simple solution or quick answer for these things. Gaining self insight is a lifelong process, and there are many ways you can exercise this muscle. I’ll go over some ways you can do this in another email.

I also have a worksheet I created years ago that walks you through the process of coming up with and choosing the right behaviors for your habit goals. I’m going to find it, edit it, and post it on my website soon. Once it’s up, I’ll be sure to let you know.

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