The Paradox of Growth: Do Habits Hurt or Help You Learn?

I’ve written before about the importance of habits. By setting up consistent rituals of action, behavior becomes automatic. Automatic behavior means you don’t need nearly the same amount of self-discipline to finish projects as someone who works on them in a haphazard way.

Habits are built on sameness. By making your triggers, schedule and internal rules of thumb consistent, you reduce the mental overhead to get those actions done. The consistent rhythm of your behavior makes continuing that pattern easier.

But here lies a problem—learning isn’t optimized by rhythm. Deliberate practice suggests the opposite, that you should break routines to drive growth. Too much consistency inevitably leads to a plateau where weaknesses ossify and improvement becomes harder.

Hence the dilemma: we want to be able to maximize growth by breaking through plateaus, however, we also need stability and consistency so that we can sustain our effort.

Resolving the Dilemma

I’ve thought hard about this problem. One area I seem to face it is in my writing. On the one hand, having a weekly writing habit allows me to ensure I’m putting in time writing each week. Whenever I’ve let this habit slip, writing becomes much more difficult. On the other hand, I want to improve my writing ability, which may not happen if I mostly write under the same conditions, week after week.

Which should take precedence? Should I sacrifice the consistency of my current writing habit because it might push me past my current level? Should I continue writing as I am and try to grow from other areas? I don’t have an easy answer.

This also strikes me as a problem many of you might face in your jobs. The job you get paid for isn’t also the one that causes you to learn the most. Your boss or clients may want you to do the work you find easiest and most routine, likely because you’re already good at it. Yet it’s precisely the work you’re not an expert at yet which will help you master your craft.

Possible Solutions

I’ve considered a few approaches that might work to resolve this dilemma.

1. Learning Projects

A project typically runs in the span of months, not days or hours. Therefore it might be a good strategy to always have a learning oriented project, but make the project long enough that you could reasonably build the habits to support it each time.

I’ve been doing this in my own work. Last year I did the MIT Challenge which, although it was directed towards computer science, was also a project to improve my writing by giving me a better understanding of the learning topics I write about. I’m working on a similarly scaled upcoming project which should hopefully have the same effect.

One weakness of this is extra effort. Projects, as opposed to narrowly focused practice sessions, have a lot of work which is necessary but doesn’t drive growth. Designing projects efficiently isn’t always easy.

2. Setting General-Purpose “Deep Focus” Hours

Another strategy I’ve seen employed by Cal Newport is to simply chunk out time for deep focus work. In practice this could mean that you set aside 2 hours every morning to deliberately pushing your skillset further. This way you benefit from having the regular deep-focus habit, but the content of that habit changes each time so you don’t plateau.

A possible disadvantage of this is that it constrains what kinds of deliberate practice you can explore. Not all valuable learning experiences can fit inside identical constraints, so you may have less flexibility to improve learning as you could with a project.

3. Environment Shifting

Another idea is to not change what you’re doing, but change where you’re doing it. This way the environment forces both habit changes and learning.

As a writer, this could mean that I make an effort to write for a different publication, write a book or start working with an editor. These environmental changes would create an external change meaning less willpower is required to complete the project, while preventing my skills from stagnating.

Switching jobs, companies, industries or cities could all be an environmental switch that could create this effect. The weakness here is that sometimes the environment you need to kickstart growth isn’t available.

What do you think? What’s your strategy for coping with the need for both change and stability? Share your thoughts in the comments.