Habits are the building blocks of our daily lives, shaping routines and general well-being. Yet, despite our best intentions, it can be challenging to stick to these habits. To make our habits stick, we must first identify the root causes of why they slip. Then, we must strategise how to reinforce our habits so that they become second nature and something we want to do.
Why you don’t stick to your habits
No satisfaction from completing a habit
When there is no satisfaction of completing a habit, what you do is no longer a habit but rather, a chore. In any habit, there should be a cue that triggers a craving which then leads to an action that results in an ultimate reward. The cue is eventually associated with the reward, but if there is no satisfaction in completing a habit, then the cue is not associated with anything positive. In fact, the cue may eventually be associated with the negativity of having to put in the effort to complete a chore, which then disincentives people from completing their habits.
Many people tend to say “I’m not a morning person”. Are these people simply genetically coded into being night owls? No. This belief of not being a morning person stems from self-talk, such that when you constantly tell yourself that you are something, you start to believe it. In the case of somebody who isn’t a “morning person”, they talk themselves into believing they are not a morning person, even if it may not be true. Over time, self-talk ties in with one’s perception of their identity, causing subconscious behaviour changes which allow them to align with that perceived identity. Going back to the morning person example, an individual may do work at night, stay up late, avoid waking up early, all of which are behaviours that reinforce the identity of not being a morning person. These behaviours also occur simply due to the individual believing they are not a morning person. The same self-deprecation can be applied to most other things, like “I’m not good at sports” or “I’m a horrible English student”.
Bottom line: if you talk yourself into believing an identity going against what you’re striving for, you become far less likely to complete the habits that get you closer to your end goal. This behaviour is due to habits failing to align with who you believe you are, like how the habit of waking up early goes against the idea of not being a morning person.
Setting bad goals
Bad goals typically revolve around an overarching outcome that is difficult to track in terms of progress. Without a solid tracker, we simply don’t know where we’re at in terms of our journey to fulfilling that goal. We then become much like ships without captains, drifting around aimlessly. Say somebody has recently started playing badminton and has declared they want to make the Macleans Premier Team. This goal certainly involves an ultimate outcome, but it is far too difficult to track. Sure, the student could use their progressions into teams as an indication, but this is a long-term tracker which fails to provide frequent rewards.
How to keep your habits
The importance of feedback loops
Keeping a habit going ultimately lies in having a good feedback loop – gratification that keeps you going back to that habit. Let’s take video games as an example: when you are playing say, Valorant and you win a game, the gratification is the win itself which creates a feedback loop, sending you into another game as you chase the high of winning. The same strategy can be implemented into keeping good habits, and it is to make completing habits feel good.
The most basic way of creating a feedback loop is to reward yourself with something you like, essentially a structure that looks like “After doing (habit you have to do), I will (habit you like to do”. This could be perhaps watching an episode of anime after finishing your maths assignments or playing one match of League Of Legends after working out. Whatever your reward may be, the end goal is to use what you love as an association to complete your habit, which will then incentivise you to keep going to get your reward.
A more advanced way to create a feedback loop goes beyond rewarding yourself with something physical like food or a stimulant like video games. At this level of feedback loops, the gratification is completing the goal itself, allowing you to make a habit out of pure love for it. There are several ways one could go about this. The first one being conditioning yourself to boredom which has been discussed (here). Ultimately, this first strategy is all about allowing yourself to embrace boredom, allowing boredom to feel comfortable so that completing a task feels much more satisfying than being bored since you’re doing something rather than nothing.
A newly discussed strategy in this article is utilising a habit tracker – particularly visual trackers. Why? Because they allow you to see your progress quickly. There are an infinite amount of ways you could go about visually tracking progress, but a great example of a habit tracker is putting pins in a jar. This strategy may sound ridiculous, but being able to see an empty jar slowly fill up with pins as days pass is a serious motivator in helping someone carry on with their habits. It lets them know how far they’ve gone, and gives them gratification by gamifying their habits. The end result is that a much more enjoyable process of completing habits is created, which plays a huge role in keeping you going in the long run.
Never miss twice
As the subheading suggests, if you don’t do a habit once, don’t repeat it a second time. Missing a habit one time is completely fine. Perhaps you forgot, or you were too busy with something else like homework. However, missing a habit repeatedly easily stacks up, creating a wall between you and getting the goal done – it makes you believe that missing out on your habit is not so bad since nothing has really happened, which could quickly disincentive you from approaching the habit at all. As a result, we want to make sure we get back on track as soon as possible whenever a habit is missed.
Set identity-based goals
To set a goal that we can work towards with good habits, these goals must not be based on an ultimate outcome, such as getting jacked or getting top ten in Cross Country. Rather, these goals should be based around building a specific character. Going back to the previous examples of goals, an identity-based goal as opposed to getting jacked is to become someone who regularly goes to a gym; say, thrice a week. An identity-based goal as opposed to getting top ten in Cross Country is becoming someone who runs long distances regularly, eats well and rests at least eight hours. By setting identity-based goals, going through habits associated with such goals and tracking progress become far easier (it’s certainly easier to see yourself going to the gym regularly than seeing yourself getting more jacked!). Such goals allow us to move away from being motivated due to rewards or punishment, but rather, more so out of pure love or joy of completing the habit because we begin aligning with a desired identity.
2nd July, 2023
Written by Aaron Huang
Edited by Emma Li