Three Ways to Fix a Stubborn Habit

Fill in the blank: I know I should do ______, but I just can’t seem to stick to it.

I’m sure most people could fill a long list of things to fit that sentence. Maybe it’s exercise, eating right, getting more sleep or even just flossing.

Sometimes those complaints are not genuine desires for change. You might feel social pressure to not play video games several hours a day, but internally feel like it gives you enough joy to be worthwhile. As a result it might feel like something you “should” do, but you have no real motivation to solve it.

But even if we sometimes exaggerate our sincerity with desires to change habits like these, there’s still lots of things we’d like to do better, but can’t because it’s too difficult.

For cases like these, I’ve found out of all the different techniques to change habits, the vast majority fall into three categories. If you struggle with making a good habit or eliminating a bad one, you can try one of these three.

Strategy #1: Make the Habit Easier

Sometimes the habit is simply too overwhelming. Running for an hour every day when you haven’t exercised in six months is a recipe for burnout. Same with starting a complex productivity system which uses thirty-two different categories for sorting your workload.

Even if the habit isn’t too difficult to get started, it may still be too difficult to maintain when you stop focusing on it completely. Some habits can take hundreds of days before they feel fully automatic. Therefore a lot of behavior changes fail in the medium-term, when you’ve run out of initial enthusiasm but haven’t been able to put the behavior on autopilot yet.

The solution to this is to make the habit easier. Reduce the complexity or success criteria for what consititutes the habit.

A friend of mine struggled with a gym habit until he took this step. His solution? Make the initial habit simply touching the door of the gym he went to. He didn’t actually have to work out. Although this isn’t the complete habit he wanted, he could establish this habit and then build a later one of actually going to the gym, or doing a specific workout.

Strategy #2: Invest more Focus in the Habit

Sometimes you can’t make the habit easier, or you don’t have the time to afford the ramp-up to a full habit. If you’re taking a class and trying to work on new studying habits, you may not have the luxury of slowly getting better habits over a few years, because by then your exam will be finished.

In these cases, you can generate more focus for the particular habit. Make one and only one change your complete priority for a certain period of time. If you’re thinking about starting several habits, reduce it to just one and set your mind on that.

This was a strategy I used a lot in my beginning time setting habits. I would use the thirty-day trial method, with the caveat that I would only focus on one trial at a time. Discipline varies from person to person and can improve with training, but if you focus all your effort on only one habit, you can tackle much more difficult habits for one thirty day chunk.

Strategy #3: Lengthen the Habituation Period

Sometimes you’ll start a habit, it will work well, but then fall off the wagon a couple months down the road. This is particularly true of habits that require a constant investment of time (say exercise, cooking or learning a new skill).

These kinds of habits often feel like they just don’t stick, even after you’ve committed to them for a long period of time. You might even have used the previous two methods, but they still don’t become permanent fixtures, instead feeling like they always require constant willpower to sustain.

Here a possible solution is to simply draw out the time you go through the habituation phase. Instead of trying to commit to a particular change for three weeks or thirty days, try going for three months.

Some might wonder what the difference is between lengthening the habituation period and simply doing the habit for a long period of time. After all, if you’re successful with a habit, won’t you keep doing it, and therefore having a long period of habituation?

In my mind there are a couple variables that characterize the initial period of habituation with the follow-up period which can be considered when trying to make difficult habits stick:

  1. How consistent you force the habit to be. In the habituation phase, you might be highly rigid when starting the habit. Meaning you always go to the gym at the exact same time, with the exact same workout. You might go to the gym even when you can’t workout because you’re sick or tired, just to condition yourself to go there. Lengthening habituation means extending the phase where you perform the habit in an overly rigid way to maintain consistency.
  2. Whether you take on additional goals or habits. A habituation phase implies a certain amount of focus is being put on the habit. Once the habituation phase is over, you should be able to think about other goals and projects. Here, lengthening that phase means spending more time where you aren’t starting new habits.

A good proportion methods you’ll encounter for changing habits play on one of these three themes. They either make the habit easier, they generate greater focus or they hold the behavior for more time to make it stick.

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