The Pitfalls of Habit Building

I’m a huge fan of habit building. Whatever skill you want to possess, whatever project you want to tackle – forming the right habits is the answer. That means any kind of complex task is best tackled by working on it DAILY, in MANAGABLE chunks. By working on it daily, this new routine becomes completely ingrained in you, so you never stop – regularity is key. By focusing on manageable chunks, you make sure you can keep the habit up, even after a really bad night’s sleep or when feeling sick – sustainability is key.

This is NOT how most people approach a complex task though, oh no. They can’t stand the idea of slow, sustainable progress over a long period of time – they want results, and they want them now. So instead of aiming for incremental change, they go for radical effort. They apply themselves with vigour to their task, as if it could be solved in one day. They give it everything they have, all their willpower, and every minute that they are awake; all their resources go into the project.

This works great – for about two months. Then it slowly becomes obvious you can’t keep this pace up. You simply can’t ignore the other areas of your life indefinitely, and if you keep doing so, it WILL come back at you. The bill you forgot to pay because you were so absorbed in your project? The car you didn’t take to be checked because you didn’t want to be distracted? You eating take-out out for the last six weeks, because you supposedly have no time for healthy cooking? Some of this stuff is too important to ignore; if you do, it might even have fatal consequences.

So you start to slack off. First, only a little bit. Maybe you miss one of your monster workout sessions at the gym or you don’t run your 10k that day. No big deal, you’ll just do it tomorrow, right? But then it happens again, and again. And after an intermediate period of lacklustre effort, you eventually decide to drop your complex task altogether. You don’t believe me? Just look at your own history of failed diets, attempts to get fit or learn a new language – a lot of good intentions, a lot of initial vigour, but very little results to show for it.

I’m not trying to make you feel bad about yourself. I’m just trying to point out that there is a better way. And that means being in the game for the long run. Sustained daily effort over a long period of time will almost always get the job done. Start with a very small habit and only slowly build it up over time, so you can sustain it. If you drop it, everything is lost. If you keep doing it, success is almost inevitable.

I keep preaching this, as I really think this is the best way to get any job done. I look around at my friends, my family, the people I used to coach and I always see the same pattern – habit driven people beat out the radical effort crowd in almost every single scenario.

However, where there is light, there is also shadow…

As I recently have been discovering myself, there is also an inbuilt pitfall to habit forming. Let’s say you practice about 5 daily habits, which you follow religiously. You work on your most important job related skill every day for two hours, i.e. sales, by calling 10 new customers every day – great. You also do 50 push ups every day to get those pecs popping. You study Chinese for 15 minutes, you eat at least one serving of veggies and to top it off, you do an hour of reading each night. This is a great regimen, and if you follow it for the weeks, months and years to come, on a DAILY basis, you will subsequently see incredible results.

Unfortunately, you might also grow too comfortable with it.

See, the psychological idea behind habit building is exactly that you want to trick yourself into doing something that normally makes you feel uncomfortable. This uncomfortable feeling can be greatly reduced, if not completely overcome, by making the stressor a daily component of your life. Doing so will mentally numb you to the uncomfortable feeling that goes with it; you can’t keep disliking something that you constantly practice.

This works great: after a few weeks and months, you are suddenly doing a bunch of stuff that you were never able to make yourself do in the past. What used to feel uncomfortable now feels relatively comfortable and normal.

And this is exactly the point where you plateau.

It is so tempting to fall for this: You have successfully raised your baseline, and understandably, you are pretty proud of yourself. Every day you are sticking with your habits, and every day you feel like you are fighting the good fight. So you just lean back and switch to auto pilot – after all, that is what habit building is about, right? Automating certain activities, until they become second nature to you.

All true. But unfortunately, there is more to it. Once you have established and solidified a new baseline, the whole cursed process starts over again… What now feels comfortable needs to be further expanded up to the point where it starts feeling slightly uncomfortable again. And then the cycle simply repeats itself, again and again. You establish a new baseline, you give it some time to really sink in and then you push for that not-so-wonderful feeling of being uncomfortable again.

That’s the theory. But, what does the reality look like?

In the case of our aforementioned 5 item regimen, this could mean simply increasing each of your already established habits. So instead of calling 10 people each day, you call 15. You do another set of push ups at night, increasing the total to 75. 15 minutes Chinese learning becomes 30, you now eat veggies for every meal, and hell, did I just finish ANOTHER book?

This is what I would call a QUANTITATIVE approach to increasing the baseline and it’s pretty plausible.

So – problem solved, right? I’ll just make sure to adjust the work load every once in a while!

Unfortunately, it’s not that easy either…

I mean, raising your baseline quantitatively is never a bad thing. Despite the popular saying, having too much of a good thing is rarely the problem. The real problem is this: Sometimes attacking your baseline quantitatively is simply not the right move. What you need to do instead is alter your baseline QUALITATIVELY.

All theory is grey; let’s go back to our example. So you’ve been cold calling 10 people a day every day for the last 6 months. As a result, your communication skills have significantly improved – you are now able to regularly keep the conversation going, get the other person interested in your product and even get them to agree for you to send them some info material. Congrats, you have built up a valuable skillset. However, this is just the beginning of course – you haven’t actually made the sale yet, because you haven’t really focused on following up. You are great at the starting phase of the sales process, but that is not an end in itself; the goal is to clinch the sale.

So, instead of doing MORE cold calls, it might be wiser at this point to shift your habit forming in a qualitative way: you keep the cold calls but establish an additional habit of visiting 3 of your potential customers per week in person.

This difference between quantitative and qualitative baseline increasing might seem trivial when I explain it this way – but it’s a lot less trivial when you are the one trying to make the right decisions in the trenches. Being constantly busy, stressed out and overloaded with information, it is extremely tempting to either just stay with your current habit regimen, once it has become comfortable or to just raise the workload quantitatively – more of the same you are already used to is much easier to handle than setting up an altogether new habit; a new habit that would best for you, but would make you feel extremely uncomfortable all over again.

As you can see, habit forming, albeit the best and most promising way to get what you want, still has its own inbuilt pitfalls. It is the best way of doing things, certainly the most sustainable one, but it’s still a struggle. Always question yourself when getting too comfortable with a certain habit routine, catching yourself just doing more of what you are already doing.

It might be high time to mix it up.