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.

  • Ilham

    Hello Scott,

    It’s a tough question, one that I have been tackling for the past two years as I finished my undergraduate studies.

    I have been particularly interested in it because I plan to complete my own MIT challenge (or at least hope to) in Computational Biology.

    For me I think stability would have to be built in habits the enforce me to study the topics on my own using MIT resources and my own textbooks. So this would be actively reading textbooks, practising a lot, and developing skills to be able to undergo the necessary changes.

    The change part would be achieved through personal mini-projects that help me practice as well. As a point, a big part of computational biology is dealing with terabytes of freely available DNA sequences. I could set up mini-silicon experiments to test my hypothesis but also grow my skills in doing so.

    I hope that was a clear point.

  • William Peregoy

    Good thoughts. Personally, I’m a big fan of the learning projects. I’ve also used the changing environments one quite a bit too… and always have since my college days at least.

    Setting aside 2 hours of “deep focus” time is probably one I should do more of. Thanks for the idea.

  • Elias

    I’ve solved this problem with energy management and incremental deliberate practice.

    My routines are jogging 2-3 times a week, rehearsing songs on the piano for at least 30m everyday, and fasting 2-3 days a week. As soon as these routines become more automatic I use the leftover energy for deliberate practice; and then I wait until it’s easier to perform on the new level I’ve reached (with deliberate practice) before I go to yet a new one with deliberate practice.

    After 3 jogs I increase the distance I run and make sure I get used to that distance before I move on, after I can perfectly play a part in a song I move on to another part and learn to perfectly play that before I move on again, and I only fast 3 times a week instead of 2 if I’m not spending too much energy on the other habits.

  • Jason Sells Corvallis Homes

    This is tough, and the article ended in an inconclusive manner.

    Personally, I have found it easier to stay in my habits that give me the most growth. Examples: Journalling, lifting weights, reading, marketing ect.

    Growth seems to keep coming as long, as I keep the content Im feeding myself fresh and focused on different niche area’s of my life and business.

    When I leave my daily habits, I literally can’t get anything done. It becomes a very bad day.

  • John


    I truly admire the great work you are doing with deliberate practice.

    Here is BRAND-NEW Perspective.

    Learning about the training of long-distance runners would be EXTREMELY beneficial.

    Here are some of the BIG LESSONS from the Training of long-distance runners.

    1)Competition is pivotal-This keeps motivation high.

    2) Super objective measurement of progress- If Usain Bolt runs 9.58 for the 100m he is the fastest man in the world period. If Mozart writes a song or Shakespeare writes a play no one can compare that to other songs and plays as objectively.

    3) A time-tested platform for developing talent-

    If you study training for runners you will find that the training is personalized for the skill of the runner, their body physiology (fast-twitch fibers ratio to slow-twitch), and their past training.

    BUT this personalization is quite “limited”, because there are definitely some ingredients that are present in EVERY single runners training. For example, to be a world-class marathoner you MUST RUN more than 100 miles per week period. There maybe some exceptions but at least 95-98% run 100 miles per week.

    The same systematic system can be applied to the size of the vocabulary of the winner of a Literature Nobel Prize. I am sure if you study them you find a number of words that most of them have accumulated.

    Here is little story…

    If a guy walks up to a world-class marathon coach and says I want to break the marathon world record. The coach will reply “Okay, So I need you to run 120-130 miles next week and do this and this workout at these speeds.” If the runner can’t do that then the coach will say “Okay I want you to start with 30 miles per week and build up every third week”

    In contrast, if a guy walks up to a “writing coach” they will give you some general tips, but they will NOT provide you with a clear path to writing a Masterpiece. THIS IS A BIG PROBLEM.

    I understand that running and writing are different, but I think that if “training” to become a better writer became more systematic and measurable the results would “explode”.

    For example, if you found that 95% of Literature Nobel Laureates had a 20,000 word vocabulary you could look for the best method to acquire new works (mnemonics/flashcards/etc). You could then spend your time learning the words. Keep in mind that this is a DRASTIC over simplification, but I think that deliberate practice has to be taken out of the abstract and into go run 20 miles at 10mph or go learn the definitions of 100 new words.

  • Al King

    I think “habits == sameness” is an issue, but you’ve just got to change the level of abstraction – habit for overall plan, but not for the low-level action.

    For example, I’m no virtuoso, but habit has helped a lot in learning music and piano. I establish a habit of, say, trying to learn a piece or do some ear training, but that doesn’t dictate the actual approach I use. Under the heading of ‘practice X’ my actual behaviour is pretty variable: if one learning approach is stuck – say, learning one segment by playing it slowly – I’ll try another approach, like playing it forwards and backwards in a loop, or playing with a different rhythm/accent.

    I guess the two things I try to consign to habit are consistency and outlook – work on something regularly, and constantly look for/be open to clues about how to move foward. I avoid routine in the action itself.

  • John

    I believe if your attacking a project and become mired with repetitious approaches to the same conclusion, which is fine but has no inspiration , back off go to something else and come back and try a fresh approach almost abstract, at least it will start you thinking on a road seldom traveled, and then who knows .

  • Lauren

    I just finished a webinar course two weeks ago and the class learned several tools for getting into a state where we felt connected with and feeling unconditional love for people. One of the exercises, which I learned and practiced from an earlier course, is to “dissolve occurrings” that is, realizing what is really happetning instead of saying what we think of it, emotionally. We kept an alarm going off every hour and then thought about any occurring we were having and dissolving it with the method we were taught. After awhile, I absorbed the method itself and it became a bit of a struggle to pay attention to the alarm. However, once I began deliberately paying attention, I started catching the subtle occurrings which brought it to a whole new level. I think we become too used to a method and grow restless and bored for something new or what has been called “monkey mind” by B

  • Lauren

    …uddhists. Changing it up is fine and yet when I concentrate on a method I’ve already learned brings me to new understanding and self-growth.

  • Zaima Abdullahi

    I am learning more than 20 years, and yet capable to write as enough as required, my problem is I consider to simply find the article or the tobic I desire to write about in google and simply make some adjustment that is purely my thought, which makes me to idle my mind and borrow other mind then building upon mine.
    This is the time I need to change my habits and be much confidence with myself, this is because I am Somalian, I have the perception that the two language that I used my education instructions are Arabic and English, I believed that I never write and talk as native, that makes me loose my confidence to write or even talk.
    From now onward will start new habit to write and talk any thing I know.

  • rita

    As a creative writer (Arriving in Chicago, 2011) and a logic anaylzer in the Automotive Industry I rather grow on my creative stage and keep the stability in the daily job. Writing isn´t limited by a contract or a boss.
    The challenge for me is to switch from one stage to the other. I tend to grow as a writer, expand slowly my topics, adding these pieces to my big picture & deepen them. The routine goes in the 8 hr. job.
    Maybe changing the environment while writing but keeping up with the topic is another growth factor. We´re stimulated by what we hear and sense once writing.