Why is it So Hard to Create Permanent Habits?

Motivation works well in the short-term. If you set a new goal, you can probably summon up the motivation to pursue it earnestly for a week or two. If the goal is tremendously important, that motivation may even carry you uninterrupted for a month.

But motivation wanes. If your goal takes more than a month or two, you’re going to need more than just motivation. You’re going to need habits.

Habit-building methods are great because they translate that short-term motivation into something more durable. If you invest in consistent routines, with triggers, rewards and punishments, you can stabilize that motivation into systematic output.

The Gospel of Changing Habits

This transition from motivated bursts to stable habits is often so powerful that people who’ve never tried it before become proselytizing converts.

My friend recently got into setting habits. He went from struggling to go to the gym regularly to managing dozens of habits with intricately engineered systems.

I know many bloggers that built their initial audiences on habit forming. Part of that is because habits are a popular topic. But I suspect the real reason is that the methods are so powerful that people feel compelled to start a blog about them.

I know this because I was one of them. I went from struggling to follow through on simple plans to coordinating habits with eating, exercising, reading, sleeping, productivity and more. Outsiders must have thought I was crazy, but the truth was it was simply the first time in my life I had the ability to do it.

Habits Work Well in the Medium-Term

I’ve been using habit-changing tools for well over a decade now. If you follow the basic assumption of habits, that it takes a few months of running a habit to make it permanent, I should have had time to permanently stabilize dozens, perhaps hundreds, of habits.

But that hasn’t happened.

Instead, if I review the last ten years of my time spent working with habits, I’m far more often restarting habits than creating new ones.

In all, I can only think of two that have been more or less permanent: vegetarianism (currently pescetarianism) and weekly/daily goals. Some have had long lifespans: my gym-going habit lasted for several years unchanging before I had to restart it. Many others, like morning rituals, I end up needing to restart every few months.

What gives? After all, the promise of habits is that an initial investment in effort could create a permanently stable system. Why do some habits require perpetual maintenance to sustain?

Action Requires Two Kinds of Effort

My explanation is that any action requires two kinds of effort in order to get done. An intrinsic effort that depends on the action and an effort to decide whether or not to execute the action. Habits can modify the first, but the main reason they work is that they eliminate the second type of effort.

To understand this, let’s say that you have the goal of reading a book per week, so you decide to make it a habit. In this case, you decide you need to read at least fifty pages a day in order to meet your goal.

Every time you read the book, you’re investing these two kinds of effort. First there’s the effort of reading. Depending on the difficulty of the book, this might require a lot of effort or zero effort. Imagine the difference between a quantum physics textbook and a Harry Potter book and you’ll see why.

However, if the book you plan to read will require effort, it also requires a secondary cost of effort. This is the effort required to overcome the urge to procrastinate and start reading the book. If you’ve ever felt tired after a day of doing nothing, you probably understand this effort cost.

Habits, from my experience, appear to reduce these two costs in different ways:

  1. Habits can reduce the intrinsic cost by making you better at the task. As you read more difficult books, you get better at reading, so it doesn’t require as much energy.
  2. Habits reduce the decision cost by eliminating the ambiguity of when and how to perform the behavior. If you read your fifty pages at lunch, every day, for three months, the next lunch break you’ll automatically start reading without having to decide whether to do it.

For a lot of tasks, the second cost reduction is far greater than the first. Flossing, for instance, hasn’t gotten any easier the hundredth time I’ve done it, but I have stopped thinking about whether I should do it.

Habits are Metastable

This idea that there are two types of effort invested in behaviors explains a lot of my own experience with habits. Namely:

  • Not all habits are equally easy to build. This makes sense because some have higher intrinsic effort required, which results in not only higher intrinsic cost but also higher decision costs.
  • You can’t establish an unlimited number of habits. This makes sense because even if you eliminate the decision effort, you still have to pay the intrinsic effort. That means you could set up many intrinisically easy habits (like flossing), but probably not a large amount of intrinsically difficult habits (like reading boring books).
  • Most habits are only metastable. Metastability is a concept in physics where a certain state of affairs is stable, but small perturbations can break that stability. A pendulum, for instance, has two stable points: one where the weight is at the bottom and one where the weight is perfectly balanced at the top. Except the one at the bottom will return to the bottom if it is pushed slightly, whereas the one perfectly balanced at the top will never go back after a slight push.

This idea of metastability conforms to my experience as the reason why I’ve found few habits have had permanent lifespans. Inevitably, the habit breaks down because of a temporary lifestyle change: a vacation, an illness, needing to move or work overtime. These create shocks which are often enough to break the behavior, increase the decision cost, making it no longer automatic when you return to the habit.

How to Deal With Medium-Term Habits

This metastability suggests that the most important positions to look at when setting a habit are during possible disruptions. If you temporarily have to break a habit, then re-establishing it as soon as the interruption is gone should be your top priority.

Even better if you can avoid breaking the habit at all, creating a placeholder habit in its absence. That might mean reading five pages instead of fifty when you’re busy, or doing a home workout when you’re traveling instead of going to the gym.

Which habits do you have to frequently restart? What causes you to break the habit? Which habits have you maintained without interruption for years? What prevents them from degrading? Share your thoughts in the comments.


Which Skills Should You Master?

There’s enough time in life to become mediocre at a lot of things. But there isn’t enough time to get really good at more than a couple. Most people don’t even get really good at one.

How do you figure out which skills are worth mastering?

It’s a difficult question, and one I’ve often struggled with. But I’ve found a handy rule of thumb which can help make the decision clearer: which skill, if you were truly exceptional only at that one, would still be enough to have an interesting and successful career?

Say you wanted to be a writer. There’s plenty of skills that could help you be successful: deep expertise in a subject, perfect grammar or marketing skills. But for writing, there’s only one that could stand alone: writing compelling content. If you can do that well, you’ll have a great career. The others, alone, won’t be enough.

Or consider being an entrepreneur. Again, there are many skills which could be useful. Understanding finance, networking and recruiting could all qualify. But without deeply understanding what people want, none of that matters.

What is Your One Skill?

Actually, I lied earlier. You could have a very successful career, if your only exceptional skill was great marketing, recruiting or understanding finance. It just might not be the same career as one where you’re focused on creating compelling content or understanding what people want.

With economic specialization, nearly any useful skill will become the core skill of at least some jobs.

The difficulty arises because although specialization exists, it’s never perfect. We often have to perform many tasks that aren’t the core skill of our job. Sometimes we’re even misled, believing our core skill is one thing when it’s actually another.

Blogging is an excellent example. When you get started, it’s easy to believe that the key to success is mastering a bewildering array of technologies, social media hacks and networking gimmicks. But the core skill of any successful blogger is the same as the writer: delivering compelling content.

If the thing you’re becoming exceptional at isn’t the core skill for your job, you need to either switch jobs or switch skills.

Hunt for Counterexamples

How do you figure out what is the core skill for your career? For that, I’d test it. Look for examples of successful people who all have the same career and test them on various attributes. It’s a core skill if almost every person who is successful is excellent at it. It’s not a core skill if you can find plenty of successful people who are lousy at it.

If you were investigating blogging, it’s very hard to find successful blogs without compelling content. However there are plenty that have no social media or lousy designs.

The core skill should be something all or almost all successful people in that role have. Auxiliary skills may be present more often in successful people (especially once they’ve reached a level of success where delegating and outsourcing are possible), but finding counterexamples should be easy.

Now Focus on that One Skill

Whenever I find myself learning something for my career, I ask myself: how is this helping me create more compelling content? If it’s not, I try to find some way to avoid or outsource it. If I can’t, I focus on getting minimal proficiency and then moving on.

Admittedly, this is easier said than done. I’ve done learning projects, picking up skills quite unrelated to writing that have helped me make more compelling content. So, in a sense, the MIT Challenge and the Year Without English have helped me improve that one skill. But they also created new distractions, so I’m less confident that they would have been better than, say, focusing exclusively on writing for a year instead.

What’s your one skill? What one skill do all successful people in your career share? What are the distraction skills that feel important but aren’t decisive? Special thanks to Cal Newport for inspiring this post.