We all know how exciting it is to start a new habit. Today we’re going to be the type of person who wakes up early! Packs their lunch before work! Goes to the gym!
We also know how exciting it is to experience something that pulls us away from the daily grind. Today, we get to sleep in! A coworker suggested we try the new pizza place! The weather’s too nasty to make it to the gym, so we get to stay home and watch Netflix instead!
There’s nothing wrong with skipping the gym now and then, of course. (Rest days are just as important as workout days.) However, when your habits are in that tricky stage where they’re no longer new but not quite routine, it’s crucial that you stick to them.
The problem is that intentionally creating a new and beneficial habit means you have an emotional response to it. For instance, you may feel proud of yourself when you begin your habit of packing a lunch each day. Look at you, starting a new money-saving habit! You can puff out your chest with pride as you calculate how much you’re saving with each homemade sandwich.
But that emotional response is not going to be quite as strong on day 17. That’s because the process of creating a habit also numbs your emotional response to that habit. In other words, as the habit takes over, you’re more likely to feel bored by it, since it’s no longer novel.
There’s a reason this happens on Day 17 and not Day 70. At this point, you’re getting used to your habits—which means you’re no longer getting the emotional boost that comes with trying something new—but they haven’t yet become part of who you are.
In other words: you aren’t really a person who packs their lunch every day; you’re a person who’s tried packing their lunch for two weeks. You could also be a person who tries that new pizza place, because your lunch-packing habit hasn’t yet become ingrained enough for you to experience and appreciate the long-term benefits (saving money, eating more nutritious food, etc.).
I’ve done a lot of work in terms of optimising my habits and routines and I still fall into the habit boredom trap. A new habit has to become part of my identity before it’ll stick; if it’s just something I’m testing out, it’s easy for me to decide to do something else instead.
With that in mind, here’s what’s worked for me—and here’s what hasn’t.
A lot of people are all about streaks: tracking every day you do a new habit and trying to make the streak last for as long as possible. When you sign up for a habit-tracker app, it’ll probably focus on having you track streaks—and it’ll probably remind you that Jerry Seinfeld once said a thing about how the secret to his success was “not breaking the chain.”
Streaks work for a lot of people, but they don’t work for me. Life has too many variables for me to say “I will always go to bed at exactly the same time every night” and so on.
Instead, I try to make sure I hit every one of my core habits five days out of seven. This gives me the flexibility to accept that invite to the pizza place, or skip the gym on a really wet day, without having to feel guilty about messing up my streak.
A typical habit/nutrition/exercise app will also include some kind of social component, to encourage both a spirit of competition and a sense of accountability. You’ll be motivated to complete your workout, for example, so you can tell your friends and boost your ranking.
I don’t care about competition—the only person I’m playing against is myself—but I do care about accountability. A LOT.
This means that if I do something like “tell Lifehacker I’m only going to buy one candy per week from the candy shop across from my apartment,” I will stick to my word. (And I have, in case you were curious.)
After all, I put it on the internet—and that means it has to be true.
The great thing about lifting weights is that the weights keep getting heavier. This means I can still get that “new experience boost” even though I’ve been weightlifting for over a year now. That’s enough to get me back into the gym multiple times a week—and it might be enough to keep you committed to your habits as well. How many books have you read this year? How much money have you saved by packing those lunches?
Get excited about each record you break, and you’ll be more likely to break the next one.
Some people give themselves rewards after successfully doing their new habit for a certain length of time.
This one doesn’t work for me, in part because my habits include stuff like “stick to my $US2,500 ($3,636)/month budget” and “only buy one candy per week,” so rewarding myself for that behaviour by buying myself a treat doesn’t make sense.
Neither does the idea of rewarding myself for “going to bed on time” by “letting myself stay up late.” (Or rewarding myself for “going to bed on time” by “letting myself buy a second candy.”)
If you can set up a reward structure that doesn’t conflict with an existing habit, good for you. I haven’t found one that works for me yet—though I have told myself that the reward for completing all of these habits will be feeling well-rested, getting to put more money into my investments, and so on.
In other words, the reward is feeling happier about my life.
The other reward, as I mentioned earlier, is turning those habits into part of my long-term identity. I am a person who has kept up a yoga practice for over ten years, for example. At this point, it isn’t even a habit anymore; it’s just something I do every morning, even when I’m sick or on vacation.
That’s where you want to get with your habits as well—and to do that, you’ll need to get through the habit boredom phase and see your habit from Day 1 to Day 17 to Day 70 to Day 700 and beyond.