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.

  • Albatrossed

    What book is that, Tara?

  • Better Than Before by Gretchen Rubin. She’s on Amazon and Audible. I’m really enjoying it.

  • Tara Schiller

    Better Than Before by Gretchen Rubin. She’s on Amazon and Audible. I’m really enjoying it.

  • Binni

    When I try to add a book to my Amazon wishlist only to discover that it’s already there, does that mean I should just go ahead and buy it? 🙂

  • Binni

    When I try to add a book to my Amazon wishlist only to discover that it’s already there, does that mean I should just go ahead and buy it? 🙂

  • Haha. I think that’s a good sign.

  • Tara Schiller

    Haha. I think that’s a good sign.

  • I’m working on habit changes this year so this is timely.

    I’ve noticed differences in forming positive habits vs. eliminating negative habits. Forming new positive habits for me have been far easier than breaking negative habits for the most part, except in the domain of quitting sugar which has been surprisingly easy.

    I think forming new habits has been so easy for me though because I’m using the Mini Habits/Tiny Habits idea: making the habit that of *starting* the new behavior, and ideally with a clear trigger. For instance I’ve easily kept a habit of reading 2 pages a day, with most days reading far more than 2 pages, and occasionally lapsing for a day or two. But the research is clear that missing a day here and there doesn’t matter that much for habit formation anyway.

    There’s also a sort of “total volume” effect I’ve noticed. I can definitely add or subtract more than 1 habit at a time, but I cannot do 20 at a time. The number I can maintain is somewhere in the middle, depending on the amount of willpower and time required for each of the habits, and how it affects my overall free time feeling of spaciousness and spontaneity. If I’m overbooked, I’ll break and throw everything to the wind, but the same will happen if I am under-disciplined/under-booked. There is a mid-point that is optimal, and it is constantly shifting based on other life pressures, responsibilities, and stress levels.

  • Duff McDuffee

    I’m working on habit changes this year so this is timely.

    I’ve noticed differences in forming positive habits vs. eliminating negative habits. Forming new positive habits for me have been far easier than breaking negative habits for the most part, except in the domain of quitting sugar which has been surprisingly easy.

    I think forming new habits has been so easy for me though because I’m using the Mini Habits/Tiny Habits idea: making the habit that of *starting* the new behavior, and ideally with a clear trigger. For instance I’ve easily kept a habit of reading 2 pages a day, with most days reading far more than 2 pages, and occasionally lapsing for a day or two. But the research is clear that missing a day here and there doesn’t matter that much for habit formation anyway.

    There’s also a sort of “total volume” effect I’ve noticed. I can definitely add or subtract more than 1 habit at a time, but I cannot do 20 at a time. The number I can maintain is somewhere in the middle, depending on the amount of willpower and time required for each of the habits, and how it affects my overall free time feeling of spaciousness and spontaneity. If I’m overbooked, I’ll break and throw everything to the wind, but the same will happen if I am under-disciplined/under-booked. There is a mid-point that is optimal, and it is constantly shifting based on other life pressures, responsibilities, and stress levels.

  • Leila

    I have a number of activities I need to keep in play – not easy ones, but ones I have to devote plenty of attention to. I find that some of them have a regular day to day slot and others I fit in on an every other day basis. Very occasionally (after a particularly heavy day usually) I skip one of these every day activities, but try to rotate the one I skip. As you say, it’s easy to lose momentum in the habit zone. Thanks for the input – really helpful.

  • Leila

    I have a number of activities I need to keep in play – not easy ones, but ones I have to devote plenty of attention to. I find that some of them have a regular day to day slot and others I fit in on an every other day basis. Very occasionally (after a particularly heavy day usually) I skip one of these every day activities, but try to rotate the one I skip. As you say, it’s easy to lose momentum in the habit zone. Thanks for the input – really helpful.

  • I have found http://www.habitrpg.com to be a good way to keep track of habits that I’m trying to start or maintain. It’s set up as a game with no real playability (so it doesn’t turn into its own distraction), but you do get a character with hit points, inventory, etc. You can set up daily habits, and when you miss one, your character loses hit points. It’s simple, but the tiny incentive each day helps keep things going.

    For people who aren’t into gamification, http://www.rememberthemilk.com can provide a similar benefit. It has tasks that repeat on a schedule. Once you establish the meta-habit of checking it each day, it’s a good reminder for daily habits.

  • Duncan Smith

    I have found http://www.habitrpg.com to be a good way to keep track of habits that I’m trying to start or maintain. It’s set up as a game with no real playability (so it doesn’t turn into its own distraction), but you do get a character with hit points, inventory, etc. You can set up daily habits, and when you miss one, your character loses hit points. It’s simple, but the tiny incentive each day helps keep things going.

    For people who aren’t into gamification, http://www.rememberthemilk.com can provide a similar benefit. It has tasks that repeat on a schedule. Once you establish the meta-habit of checking it each day, it’s a good reminder for daily habits.

  • emun

    Thankx scott for sharing.Recently I have made a decision to follow my habbit of reading newspaper but I couldnt do so coz there were many of things in my mind to follow I.e spendig time on internet nd watching tv.its really hard to detemine what u should do or what habbit u should come 1st or should be on your 1st priority.despite of the fact that we know some of habbits r really of some worth for us , we dont execute those ones because we know it takes alot of effort nd boring like stuff.

  • emun

    Thankx scott for sharing.Recently I have made a decision to follow my habbit of reading newspaper but I couldnt do so coz there were many of things in my mind to follow I.e spendig time on internet nd watching tv.its really hard to detemine what u should do or what habbit u should come 1st or should be on your 1st priority.despite of the fact that we know some of habbits r really of some worth for us , we dont execute those ones because we know it takes alot of effort nd boring like stuff.

  • metastability eh? I didn’t even realize that was a thing. I never really considered a habit to be a good thing, I always referred to the good things done routinely as quirks, little parts of a personality that like the routine and repeated methodology but I suppose that is the very definition of a habit.

  • Sara Stein

    metastability eh? I didn’t even realize that was a thing. I never really considered a habit to be a good thing, I always referred to the good things done routinely as quirks, little parts of a personality that like the routine and repeated methodology but I suppose that is the very definition of a habit.

  • JayDugger

    I suggest Beeminder (beeminder.com).

  • JayDugger

    I suggest Beeminder (beeminder.com).

  • That’s a good one too. You can even combine them: https://www.beeminder.com/habitrpg

  • Duncan Smith

    That’s a good one too. You can even combine them: https://www.beeminder.com/habi

  • Farrukh Shahzad

    Exercising, reading books are two main habits i want to make but after a lot of years yet i am not able to stable them………………………

  • Farrukh Shahzad

    Exercising, reading books are two main habits i want to make but after a lot of years yet i am not able to stable them………………………

  • Vegetarianism high-five! Also, great article.

  • Lauren I. Ruiz

    Vegetarianism high-five! Also, great article.

  • youprat

    How about just aiming to sleep at a regular time instead? I’ve found that my body automatically wakes up after 8-8.5 hours of sleep. I used to force myself to wake up at 6am, no matter what time I slept (10pm, 11pm..1am!). But, I was more successful at waking up at 6am, when I’d slept by 9:30-10pm.

  • youprat

    How about just aiming to sleep at a regular time instead? I’ve found that my body automatically wakes up after 8-8.5 hours of sleep. I used to force myself to wake up at 6am, no matter what time I slept (10pm, 11pm..1am!). But, I was more successful at waking up at 6am, when I’d slept by 9:30-10pm.

  • Ali

    Thanks for the tip. My body automatically wakes me up after 6:30 to 7 hours of sleep. The problem is that I’ve a bad habit: if my alarm doesn’t go off I won’t wake up, so I go back to sleep.
    After experimenting for a few weeks, I noticed that in the days that I sleep later than 11PM, I usually wake up later than expected. Also gaming before sleep affects my sleep badly. So I’m trying to stop to game, I’ll read a book instead. The day I’m allowed to game is my day off, saturday.

  • Ali

    Thanks for the tip. My body automatically wakes me up after 6:30 to 7 hours of sleep. The problem is that I’ve a bad habit: if my alarm doesn’t go off I won’t wake up, so I go back to sleep.
    After experimenting for a few weeks, I noticed that in the days that I sleep later than 11PM, I usually wake up later than expected. Also gaming before sleep affects my sleep badly. So I’m trying to stop to game, I’ll read a book instead. The day I’m allowed to game is my day off, saturday.

  • Albatrossed

    Thanks! (two months old! Sorry!)

  • Albatrossed

    Thanks! (two months old! Sorry!)

  • Good stuff, Nir. I appreciate that you don’t just leave us hanging with some tease–you provide tangible examples and clarity on we fall short on developing desirable habits and ways to get back on track. Thanks!

  • Rex Stock

    Good stuff, Nir. I appreciate that you don’t just leave us hanging with some tease–you provide tangible examples and clarity on we fall short on developing desirable habits and ways to get back on track. Thanks!

  • Puja Chaubey

    Good stuff,I will try to do these things,bcz i want to improve my english and thats why i want to make good habbits like readind story book. but still i am not giving my full effort.

  • Puja Chaubey

    Good stuff,I will try to do these things,bcz i want to improve my english and thats why i want to make good habbits like readind story book. but still i am not giving my full effort.

  • Alexander Ladroma

    I’ve read 7 habits of highly effective people 20 years ago, I wish I’ve read this blog instead.

  • Alexander Ladroma

    I’ve read 7 habits of highly effective people 20 years ago, I wish I’ve read this blog instead.

  • zakariae

    i think this blog is better than many bestsellet book on the habits.thank you so much scott and keep giving us more idea about this subjct because it can changes the life of the most of us.for the habits i’m doing there is the learning of 10 nederlands words every day, i will do it at least for 6 months , i have done the same thing for english and the result is here , i’m writing in english , not as a native speaker but it’s readable i guess.the procrastination is another big problem , as the social media are intriguing in our life we are so dependant to the internet , 2 months ago i took a decision to delete defenitly my facebook ,twitter account, imagineyou spend between 4 and 6 hours a day on social media , now i have more time than the past few years

  • zakariae

    i think this blog is better than many bestsellet book on the habits.thank you so much scott and keep giving us more idea about this subjct because it can changes the life of the most of us.for the habits i’m doing there is the learning of 10 nederlands words every day, i will do it at least for 6 months , i have done the same thing for english and the result is here , i’m writing in english , not as a native speaker but it’s readable i guess.the procrastination is another big problem , as the social media are intriguing in our life we are so dependant to the internet , 2 months ago i took a decision to delete defenitly my facebook ,twitter account, imagineyou spend between 4 and 6 hours a day on social media , now i have more time than the past few years

  • Nate

    Skinner’s opinion was that it is necessary to either forever use reinforcement or else build good habits in ways that later become self reinforcing. Also takes environmental cues, which is hard for most things.

    Exercise may have been easier for you because it actually makes you feel good after you create the habit, and on days when we skip the gym we feel “off” because we’re accustomed to that chemical cocktail.

    Flossing however doesn’t offer an easy self reinforcer except if you think about how darn clean your teeth feel, and how gross it is to floss for the first time after not doing it for a week.

    So, the real question seems to be: how do we find out how others have made their desirable behaviours self-reinforcing?

    Honestly though, I think some of it has to form when people are children or young adults- otherwise one likely has to restart almost everything from time to time. Even smokers have to rely on hundreds of cues throughout their lives to keep them smoking.

    (Edit: skinner used to graph his writing output to self reinforce. The slope was his “productivity.” Google it, it’s interesting)

  • Nate

    Skinner’s opinion was that it is necessary to either forever use reinforcement or else build good habits in ways that later become self reinforcing. Also takes environmental cues, which is hard for most things.

    Exercise may have been easier for you because it actually makes you feel good after you create the habit, and on days when we skip the gym we feel “off” because we’re accustomed to that chemical cocktail.

    Flossing however doesn’t offer an easy self reinforcer except if you think about how darn clean your teeth feel, and how gross it is to floss for the first time after not doing it for a week.

    So, the real question seems to be: how do we find out how others have made their desirable behaviours self-reinforcing?

    Honestly though, I think some of it has to form when people are children or young adults- otherwise one likely has to restart almost everything from time to time. Even smokers have to rely on hundreds of cues throughout their lives to keep them smoking.

    (Edit: skinner used to graph his writing output to self reinforce. The slope was his “productivity.” Google it, it’s interesting)

  • Misizu

    Last year,I read the book learn more,study less.I’m kind of that students that work hard,however,fail in exams or anything else.Recently,I find out it’s not I’m not quick,it’s that I used to learn in a wrong,ineffective way.You are the idol,wish i could be a more efficient girl in future

  • Misizu

    Last year,I read the book learn more,study less.I’m kind of that students that work hard,however,fail in exams or anything else.Recently,I find out it’s not I’m not quick,it’s that I used to learn in a wrong,ineffective way.You are the idol,wish i could be a more efficient girl in future

  • Bianca

    Ah, this. I’ve been thinking similar thoughts for a long time now. I was always suspicious about the 30 day habit fad due to the same reasons. Haha. Seems like I’m not the only one.

    Thanks for all the good articles. You have this great habit of questioning old ideas. This is why I consider you one of the most reliable bloggers when it comes to accuracy, 🙂

  • Bianca

    Ah, this. I’ve been thinking similar thoughts for a long time now. I was always suspicious about the 30 day habit fad due to the same reasons. Haha. Seems like I’m not the only one.

    Thanks for all the good articles. You have this great habit of questioning old ideas. This is why I consider you one of the most reliable bloggers when it comes to accuracy, 🙂

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