But to change habits, it’s important to understand how habits work. In my experience, people make certain mistakes about the nature of habits, and that makes it harder for them to tackle their habits.
Here are some of the most common misconceptions:
1. Repetition is enough to build a habit
People assume that if they repeat a behavior consistently, it will become 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 regular exercisers, but then after the marathon, they never ran again. Or they do National Novel Writing Month and think they’ve acquired the habit of daily writing, but stop 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!
2. Consequences matter
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—for serious conditions such as diabetes, heart disease, even leprosy.
3. It’s all or nothing
Some people do better giving up something altogether; others do better when they act with moderation. For most things (though not drinking or smoking), moderation is held up as an ideal, and I often hear people say, “Indulge with moderation, because if you’re too rigid with yourself, you won’t find it possible to keep your habit. Live a little, take a break, don’t be too hard on yourself.” This approach works well for Moderators. But I’m a hardcore Abstainer, and for me, abstaining altogether from something that’s a bad habit is easier. I know it sounds rigid and harsh, but for me it’s easier. As my sister the sage told me when she gave up her beloved French fries forever, “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; another friend had to get rid of his TV. Moderation works for Moderators, abstaining works for Abstainers. Neither approach is right or wrong.
4. Habits can’t change overnight
People assume that habits can only be changed gradually, with repetition over time. That’s certainly one way habits change. But they can also change in a flash. The Strategy of the Lightning Bolt is a mysterious and elusive phenomenon, but it definitely happens; in fact, it’s much more common than I first believed. An idea or realization hits us like a lightning bolt, and we change our habits instantly. It’s frustrating, though, because while this strategy makes change easy, it’s something that happens to us—we can’t really invoke it. The effect can wear off, too, so if you experience a positive Lightning Bolt change, it’s important to recognize what’s happened and take steps to keep that habit strong, so you don’t lose the benefit of its initial effortlessness.
5. There is one rule (to rule them all)
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 Einstein did, or what worked for your brother. 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 counterproductive 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.
To read more by Gretchen Rubin, visit her site.
Photo: Michael Steele/Getty