I’ve been preoccupied with habits lately and the question of why some behaviours ‘stick’ for us, and others don’t. This might be because I am currently preoccupied with two areas where I want to shift my habits: eating less (so I can lose weight) and getting into the routine of writing regularly.
I know all the tips in the book as to what I should do (and very adept at offering others advice on same) but knowing it and actually doing it are very different things. Even to write this piece I’ve had cajole myself with different techniques (Pomodoro, switching off social media, ‘putting myself in jail,’ breaking up the task into manageable chunks and then ticking them off a to-do list). All just to stop me from procrastinating, even know I know once I am fully immersed in the writing, it will flow.
When and how will regular writing just become a habit – something I just automatically do as opposed to something each time I have actively decide to do and overcome my own resistance?
In the excellent Better than Before: Mastering the Habits of our Everyday Lives, Gretchen Rubin points out that habits are so powerful because they “eliminate the need for self-control.” A behaviour is habitual when we are not using mental energy to decide. And to understand how people are able to change and move forward, we must understand habits and how they are formed (or not).
This is a monster topic. So in this first post, I focus on willpower and motivation and how they are in fact overrated when it comes it comes to shifting habits. This means that self-flagellation over not being able to ‘stick to things’ is really not going to get you anywhere (and it’s likely to get you worse off). I also talk about how self-awareness is critical for forming good habits, but at the same time how we also need to ‘get over ourselves’ if we’re really going to get anywhere. Finally, I remind us of the paradox that ‘better’ is not a happiness destination – that fulfilment is in not necessarily in reaching the goal. Realising this doesn’t mean we shouldn’t bother ever changing (that way low mood and inertia lies) but that we can ease up on ourselves a bit, because the pressure we put on ourselves often gets in our own way.
Acts of choice use up a limited supply of mental energy
One of the most frequently cited studies of self control is Baumeister’s cookie/radish experiment. In it, two separate groups were presented with a plate of warm cookies – emitting delicious smells – and also a plate of radishes. One group was asked to eat the cookies, the other, to eat the radishes. They all complied.
Right after, each group was asked to complete a deliberately difficult puzzle. Those who had eaten the cookies stuck with the puzzle for on average 19 minutes before giving up. But the radish-eaters gave up in less than half that time – leading the researchers to conclude that they were running low on willpower, which they’d used up resisting the cookies.
i.e. “Acts of choice draw on the same limited resources for self-control.”
In short, we each have one reservoir of will and discipline, and it is depleted by any act of conscious self-regulation – whether it’s resisting a cookie, solving a puzzle, or anything else that requires effort.
This seems to mean that we need to battle against our desire for instant gratification to achieve the greater win.
As many have noted, this all explains why so many perpetual dieters fail. It also explains why even when we know what to do to be healthy, lose weight, limit alcohol, write daily, finish an assignment, keep the garden watered, pay the bills, keep on top of the laundry – the difference between knowing it and actually doing it are two very different things.
Try for too many changes at once, and we are setting ourselves up for failure, because we’re hardwired for instant gratification. And this is why we procrastinate or choose the instant pleasure of a or a large glass of pinot (or three) over the deeper reward of a healthier and more alert body and brain.
The good news: willpower and self-motivation are overrated (don’t wait for the mood to strike you – it likely won’t)
We know that making changes requires self-control, and the ability to make ‘good’ choices in spite of ourselves. Many experts are pointing to how we tend overthink the notion that to achieve what we really want, all we need is to be more self-motivating and disciplined.
This belief is one of the reasons why a lot of us might end up quitting on a change we intend to make – beating ourselves up for not having what it takes and for failing (yet again) to stick with something we’ve committed to. In fact our in-built negativity bias is fine-tuned to help us fixate on all the things we’ve done wrong, and chastise ourselves or feel low as a result, and not focus on what we’ve done right. “I obviously can’t want this enough to make it happen.”
If we seek motivation or ‘passion’ to drive us in making changes, we will likely be waiting a long time. And we will likely get caught up in a perpetual loop of what Rubin calls ‘tomorrow logic,’ where somehow we know that another day the conditions will all be right, and we’ll feel galvanised, and then when we fail, the self-flagellation part of the cycle starts up again. Jacqueline Stone recently wrote in this great piece on habit changes:
The motivation you have longed for is rare and elusive, and more importantly, it is not the answer to making the changes that escape you. You do not need to be motivated. You do not need to be in the mood to make your desired change happen… Motivation will not sustain your habit change efforts. Motivation doesn’t work. Don’t wait to be in the mood, you can make your desired change happen, whatever your mood
Making changes even if you’re not really in the mood.
Indulge in some navel-gazing
Not surprisingly, experts point to self-knowledge as key to our success. This is about knowing who you really are in terms of your values, tendencies and default behaviours, and not who you or others think you should be.
There are many ways to do this, but I confess a weakness for psychometric tools – some of which might be in shaky ground from a ‘psychological robustness’ standpoint, but nonetheless I invariably find useful. Rubin’s own ‘test’ concerns which of the Four Tendencies you might lean toward (Upholder, Questioner, Obliger, Rebel). In Better than Before, she appeases the cynics (questioners) among us with her with the following fantastic quote:
“Of course, like all oversimple classifications of this type, the dichotomy becomes, if pressed, artificial, scholastic and ultimately absurd. But…like all distinctions which embody any degree of truth, it offers a point of view from which to look and compare, a starting point for genuine investigation. (Isaih Berlin’s The Hedgehog and the Fox)
In other words – yes, it’s all a bit spurious once you dig in, but if you go into it knowing that, you can still get valuable insight.
So from Belbin, I know I am a ‘plant/innovator’ more than a completer-finisher, thanks to a mammoth Meyers Briggs analysis, I know I am very much on the borderline of ENTJ/ENFP (extroverted, intuiting, thinking, judging/feeling, perceiving). In Transactional Analysis terms I know I have a strong ‘hurry up’ driver and according to Rubin’s 4 tendencies I’m a questioner (though I reckon it’s borderline with ‘obliger’).
So you can see what an apparently self-obsessed nazel-gazer I am. But whether it’s through tools or seeking and getting feedback, understanding yourself (and also how others experience you) is fundamental to choosing your approach to habit formation.
Instead of comparing myself to others who are different from me, I can accept who I am, and put the things in place to help me ‘better’ and expect more of myself. For me this is means that although I would love to write a book, I know that because of my ‘extroverted/obliger’ tendencies, by writing a posts and articles and immediately sharing them, I will get more immediate accountability and also feel more motivated because I feel less like I am writing in an isolated vacuum. I also know that joining a weight-loss group and keeping a food diary is also helping me, and for the same reasons. In either case, the end goal may eventually come, but the path I take is one that is adapted for me, and one I am enjoying taking.
At the same time – get over yourself.
Any profile thrown up by an evaluation tool is not a blueprint for who you are – or excuses for behaviours that can get in yours (and others) ways. My extroversion doesn’t give me an excuse to not listen properly or give people space to reflect. We have to be mindful of self-fulfilling prophesies, or treating these as what Rubin refers to as ‘self actualisation’ loopholes (my favourite).
One of my clients is currently writing up her PhD thesis; she knows she responds best when deadlines are set, and uses adrenaline to spur her on to do what always turns out to be excellent work. But she also suspects this is not going to be sustainable for her, especially as she is also holding down a full-time job. She is increasingly in a position now where she has to set her own deadlines (there’s no exam or end of class essay due – she’s now confronting the vortex of the thesis). In her own words she is ‘not a planner’ and ‘deadline driven,’ but she also knows that to get this thesis done, and to alleviate her own mounting anxiety over an increasingly overwhelming goal, she needs to actively plan and do. There’s no real ‘pulling an overnighter’ the day before when it comes to handing in a doctorate.
Of course, while she may not identify as a planner, she can also point to many places in her life where she can plans vert effectively. The notion of ‘I’m not a planner/I’m deadline driven’ in this sense becomes a self-limiting belief or a self-actualisation loophole, and might suggest there it is actually internal resistance and a certain degree of fear at play here. Like so many of us, she’s a perfectionist, holding herself to a very high standard, and constantly comparing herself and criticising herself – which means she can get caught up in a cycle of beating herself up.
What’s the real goal? (“Healthy” or “worthy”?)
What’s the real goal? This one is worthy a post in its own right, and it’s a major. It’s about understanding and accepting what might really be going on as you define a goal. Perhaps nowhere is this more relevant than when it comes to weight loss and body image. Because I am a female and do not live in a cultural vacuum, I, like pretty much every woman I know (and not a few men) have a complicated relationship with this one.
So yes, I want to lose weight and increase my chances for a long and healthy life. But I also can’t lie and say that mixed up in that aren’t also feelings of what Brené Brown would call ‘not good enough’ shame. Such feelings really do need to be acknowledged and validated before we move on to deal with them – we need to ‘listen’ to shame – whether it’s about body image, or a sense that anything you write or create or put out in the world will expose you to a world of criticism. Bury those feelings, and, well, as Jung informed us what we resist persists.
Rejecting cultural pressures and shame triggers are also a core part of who I am. But I also know that at times I will use this stance as an excuse or a self-actualising loophole for repeating habits that in the end make me feel worse about myself.
For me, the self-awareness to know if I am using food to – as Brown explains it – ‘numb’ feelings of vulnerability or stress is absolutely key. Because by eating or drink to numb we actually deprive ourself of real pleasure. Breaking the numbing habit of food as a source of instant gratification, letting us turn away from the real issues concerning us – this level of self-awareness (I hope) will prove invaluable in helping me stick to newer habits I am forming around food in a way I’ve not managed to before, habits where I am more mindful of what and how I eat, but where I still at times indulge, feast and enjoy when I choose to.
Finally – ‘better’ is not a happiness destination
The notion that all of this is ‘a journey’ is a very well-worn cliche, but one we constantly forget. Rubin refers to this as the ‘hedonic treadmill’ – the notion that when get to a certain place or time (when I am thinner, when it’s Christmas, when I get that promotion) everything will be transformed and right with the world. But until then we trudge toward that future, forgetting about the present.
In Happiness By Design, Paul Dolan talks about how tend to “neutralize the impact of many good things” once they happen. This means “the positive effects of a pay raise, a marriage, or a new job won’t last for for long for most people” (64). We simply think that something will greatly affect our happiness because we are focusing attention on it. Scientists call this projection bias – we use our current feelings to project how we will feel in the future (87).
This doesn’t mean we should just give up on making changes because they won’t make us feel any better anyway (we call that ‘nihilism’) but rather that we remember that the pleasure is more in the process, the act of change itself, than any final ‘result’ we may be anticipating.
I’ll admit, I find all this a bit paradoxical, but also liberating. It takes the pressure off, and helps us to shift the focus to the here and now, and that next immediate step. Oliver Burkeman calls this the ‘lily-pad’ mindset in his latest book. And it seems, in making changes, we need to take our eyes off the ultimate prize and instead ‘be more frog.’
Next up – taking action
So here, I’ve looked at the ‘inner game’ aspect of habit formation, and how our perspective on habits and the larger goal will truly affect our ability to change or not. In my next post, I’ll be talking about the power of ‘implementation intentions‘ – a core method for coaching – and what taking action might need to look like if we’re to succeed. In the meantime, do let me know your thoughts on habits, and what does or doesn’t work for you.