The #1 Reason Good Habits Don’t Last

A commonly quoted (and incredibly scary) stat reveals that 9 out of 10 people who undergo heart bypass surgeries as a result of poor health are unable to change their habits, even with their lives on the line.

We’ve all failed at something, though luckily most of us don’t face death as a consequence. Here’s a short list of some of the habits I started, only to eventually fail:

  • For two months, I went running 3 to 4 times each week. (I even ran a half marathon!) Then I quit running and didn’t run again for over a year.
  • I decided to improve my reading speed and comprehension. I read every day, practicing with a course called Breakthrough Rapid Reading. I quit after the first month.
  • I finally created a habit of waking up early. For three months, I woke up at 5:30 AM every day. Sleep debt and laziness caught up with me–now it’s hard to get up before 7:30.

Thankfully, these failures didn’t have any significant consequences attached to them for me. My life would be slightly better if I had kept them up, but even without them I can be pretty happy and content.

But the thing that bothers me is that each of these habits was firmly in place; I had done them consistently for at least a month before I failed. I had mastered self control, exercised willpower, and shaped my life with these new productive routines, but each time the final outcome was a miserable regression back to the status quo.

The #1 Reason

So what the heck happened?! The reason these habits failed for me, and the number one reason people give up on good habits generally is that they just aren’t enjoyable.

It’s a simple truth: you are less likely to continue doing something that you do not enjoy. Here’s some proof.

Earlier this year, researchers completed a simple study about work “burnout.” First, they asked 154 undergrads to complete a series of word puzzles. Depending on your personality, “word puzzles” might sound like the 10th circle of hell, or maybe it works you up into a giddy, border-line embarrassing excitement. The researchers accounted for this by asking students, “How enjoyable do you think this task will be?” then they set them to work on the puzzles.

The results were impressive: the students who enjoyed working on the puzzles performed the best when solving them. To make things even more interesting, researchers asked students to complete a simple task after working on the puzzles. The students had to squeeze a “grip exerciser,” the spring-loaded contraption used to strengthen your hand. Using the results, researchers proved that the students who enjoyed completing the puzzles were also less fatigued, and were able to squeeze the grip for a longer period of time.

Regarding the experiment, researcher Paul O’Keefe said, “Engaging in personally interesting activities not only improves performance, but also creates an energized experience that allows people to persist when persisting would otherwise cause them to burn out.”

(This research has some limitations, namely that it was for a short term assignment rather than habit formation over time. Two other research studies confirm a direct correlation between enjoyment and adherence to a habit. Find them here and here.)

That Makes Sense, But So What?

If you enjoy doing something, naturally you’ll be more likely to do it. This is practically common sense. But let’s say I’m trying to create a new habit, like running daily, and it’s really not something that I innately enjoy. How will I get myself to run every morning? I’ll convince myself that it doesn’t matter if I enjoy it, because I have the willpower to achieve anything (cue superhero music). I’ll gut it out, forcing myself to run with the “no pain, no gain” mantra, enduring agony as I run each day. And that’s a mistake.

In a another study, this one at Northwestern University, researchers administered a “willpower test” to a group of heavy smokers. In reality, it wasn’t a willpower test at all, just mindless word associations in a quiz, but at the end the participants received a score indicating that they had either high or low “impulse control.” In other words, after taking this meaningless test, some of the smokers were told that they had high willpower and others were told that they had low willpower.

In the second part of the experiment, all of the smokers watched the movie Coffee and Cigarettes, and they were offered rewards to refrain from smoking. In this scenario, researchers found that the group that believed they had “high impulse control” was actually more likely to give in to the temptation of smoking!

Remember, neither group actually had higher willpower–random assignment made it so that the groups were relatively the same. But one group thought that they had higher willpower, and that led to them overestimating their abilities. As soon as we begin to rely too much on willpower and overestimate our self control, that’s when we’re most vulnerable to fail.

Convert to Enjoyable

The same pattern held true for each of my failed behaviors. For example, I worked for months to adjust to waking up early, always forcing myself out of bed even though I hated it. I reached the point where I thought I had mastered it, and that’s the point when I failed.

Eventually I read an article from accomplished personal development blogger Steve Pavlina, entitled, “How to Wake Up Feeling Totally Alert.” Steve’s premise is that if you feel terrible when you wake up and have to work extra hard to get out of bed in the morning, you’re doing it wrong. Waking up early should be something that you enjoy and look forward to. If you teach yourself to enjoy the habit, you won’t even need to rely on willpower because you’ll be excited to do it.

The more I thought about my failed habits, the more I realized that I really didn’t enjoy any of them; I did them to be productive and often felt good afterwards, but initiating the process was always painful. As I diagnosed my failed habits, I came up with this matrix:

Habit Success Matrix

During the months that I woke up early, I had the habit of waking up, but didn’t enjoy it; every day was painful. I was stuck in the top left quadrant of the Habit Success Matrix, which made the habit “difficult to maintain.” If I had found a way to make the habit enjoyable, I could have moved to the sweet spot, the top right quadrant, and the habit would have been easy to maintain.

Instead, my willpower and desire slowly drained until I eventually gave up on the habit.

The moral of this story? Focus on making habits enjoyable. If you’re trying to start a new habit and you find the habit enjoyable, it will be easy to change and easy to maintain that habit.

How Do You Make Habits Enjoyable?

Full length books can be devoted to answering this question, “How do you make habits enjoyable,” so I won’t promise a solution here. Instead, I’ll stick with one simple idea that I’ve seen over and over in different forms, a tried and true principle of behavior change: when you start a new habit, stick to the absolute simplest action possible.

In the words of habit blogger Leo Babauta, “Make it so simple you can’t say no.” Much of the pain and agony we experience as we try to engage new habits comes from self imposed expectations. We tell ourselves, “I have to go to the gym every day or I’m a failure,” or “If I eat one dessert, my entire fitness plan is ruined.”

By focusing on the simplest possible action, we guarantee our success and make it much easier to progress over time. Trying to eat healthy? Start by eating one piece of lettuce. Just one. Do that every day for a week, until you feel ready to work yourself up to another piece of lettuce. Your body and mind have time to adjust, and it will be much easier to learn to enjoy your new habits instead of forcing yourself into something you simply can’t enjoy.

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  • http://www.thecontentmotorist.com/ Vinish Garg

    Quite an insightful post. Leaders can certainly employ a few things from here in their professional life; since they have kinda greater responsibility to take the vision in right direction!

  • http://www.maxogles.com/ Max Ogles

    Vinish, I’m so sorry I didn’t see your comment earlier! Thanks so much for reading and I really appreciate your comments.

  • http://www.thecontentmotorist.com/ Vinish Garg

    No worries for getting it published late! :)

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  • Vince Minjares

    I recently moved to New Zealand and interestingly enough have found myself showering way more often than I did back home in the states. I hated taking a shower as kid and even as an adult have had to really push myself to do it. When I was living in San Francisco, I’d shower about twice every three days but now I’m showering 1-2 times per day here. Why the change? Music. There was a playlist that I put together for the 13 hr flight over and the first day I was here I decided randomly to play the song on my iPhone while I was in the shower. THIS MADE SHOWERING ENJOYABLE. In doing this, I realized that the shower became a place for deep introspection that was sparked by certain forms of music. I now find myself wanting to take more and more showers because I enjoy the process of deep introspection.

    I should say that Kelly McGonigal in The Willpower Instinct writes about make takes pleasurable by dopaminizing them; that is, connecting tasks with rewards that stimulate dopamine. Worth a look.

  • http://www.maxogles.com/ Max Ogles

    Vince, that made me think of something I heard recently–a girl said she puts song lyrics in a plastic bag and tapes them to the shower so she can get the lyrics right when she sings in the shower. :) Great example, though. And thanks for the book recommendation. I have heard of it, but not read it yet–I’ll move it up in my list.

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