Forming Habits

May 23, 2019 • #

This year has been an experiment for me in how one goes about forming habits — at least those of the healthy, positive variety.

We’re all familiar with falling into negative habits and how easy that can happen. There are automatic gravitation-like forces pulling us toward unhealthy habits all the time. Eating junk food, lazing around the house watching TV, not exercising, not reading, spending too much time with social media. What all of these things have in common is short-term gratification. In fact, I struggle to think of any easy traps like this that only have a delayed, long-term payoff. If eating that extra snack late at night or staying up 1 more hour to continue your Netflix binge didn’t give you instant gratification, you’d just skip the snack or go to bed.

On the flip side, positive habits are those that everyone wants to do more of, the stuff of New Years resolutions. They have the opposite common trait: you don’t see a result right away, sometimes not for months or years. Not only that, for many types of long-term investments it’s actually painful in the short-term. All forms of exercise fit this model. Running an 8-miler involves some suffering today and doesn’t knock off those pounds right away. It takes months worth of them to make a dent. This short vs. long idea is not a secret to anyone, yet it’s hard to defer those immediate satisfactions for the big win down the road. Often very hard.

I’ve never been a particularly goal-oriented person. Putting big numbers on the board to hit isn’t required for me to stay motivated. My personal motivators tend to be more intrinsic; I don’t need an externally-set objective target to stay on track. Often the act of the work itself is enough of a motivation to keep building. I can’t put my finger on it exactly other than that my motivation tends to come from within rather than without. That said, I wanted to figure out how I could manage to work in some new productive habits in a consistent, accountable way. Would setting a goal and staring at it every day actually make a difference?

I took a new approach this year by picking some things and tying numbers to them to see how it’d go. So far at about the 4+ month mark, results look promising. Because I’m such a data-driven person, I knew that not only was it critical to have the target mark set, but to be able to measure the progress toward those marks over the course of the year. Building this spreadsheet to keep track of my pace against the trendline has helped. I look at it all the time to keep up with it:

Goal tracking

One of the keys was to pick only a few goals and focus on them — running, meditation, reading books, and blogging. Those are what I’ve got on the board that I’m measuring. Trying to also add weightlifting, getting an MBA, or swimming to that list would overload the available resources and none of it would happen. I intentionally picked things that fit a specific class: not too time consuming, still enjoyable activities in their own right, fit my day-to-day pattern of life, and healthy over the long run.

Keeping it limited to things that are both good and enjoyable seems like a sound approach so far. It strikes me that this could be part of the problem with people consistently breaking their New Year promises by the time February rolls around. Creating habits around things you actually despise doing is extremely difficult. It also doesn’t hurt to have some sort of precedent of success first before committing to an every day routine. If you want to run a marathon before the year is over but you’ve literally never run 100 feet in your life, it’d be a good idea to start with some progress first rather than setting up for failure.

It’s a work in progress for me. I have a better sense now of how hard it is to get things to the point of being automatic. It’s getting close! I definitely think about getting my meditation session or running in each day without having to be reminded. It’s not on autopilot and may not ever be. My goal is to test these waters with myself on how to reprogram my own motivations so good habits become routine.