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The Pitfalls of Habits


Habits are powerful. There wouldn't be an entire section of books both helping you form good habits and break bad habits if they were not. Atomic Habits is the bible for habits in the business world and beyond. What I find interesting about habits is that they are often conflated with addiction.

Habits are highly correlated with addiction, but this generally holds true when looking backward from the addiction itself. In a study published in 2003 Norman Braun and Paolo Vanini said had this to say about addictions and habits.

Habits may be said to exist if current consumption is positively related to former consumption. Addictions may be defined as strong habits, so that every addiction is a habit, but the converse does not hold true.

Every addiction is a habit, but not every habit is an addiction. This is a good thing, of course. We don't need more addictions. However, when building habits that stick, it's important to remember that habits do not happen on their own. In fact, it's easy to lose some habits that you've built.

You can see this manifest in an especially strong way when you are trying to do something new. Learning or getting better at something is hard without committing to the habit of the action that drives the underlying outcomes. For example, think about the last time you tried to learn a new language. You may have started with lessons every other day. If you ever let that frequency slip, did you keep up with your learning? My guess is you did not.

There is probably no better example of this than in working out. Every year, millions of people set New Year's Resolutions. Many of these people resolve to get healthier by working out, and they hit the gyms in droves. The desire is strong, but the habit has not been built, and most of these people stop going to the gym as frequently after only a few weeks. They may still show up here and there because they feel guilty, but guilt is not a strong enough motivator to continue in a way that will produce results.

One way I've found to combat this type of motivation cliff is to build a habit around the activity. Keeping with the theme of working out, telling myself that every day at 7:00 am, I will work out was a good start. But I struggled with when to take days off. I tried to focus on getting a workout in at least 4 days per week, but that wasn't a strong enough commitment to build a habit. I would miss a couple of days and then it would be hard to make up the days and hit my goal.

It wasn't until I built the habit of working out every day besides two predefined off days that the habit stuck. This applies to many things outside of working out as well. When I was learning to code, I had to build a daily habit of actually writing code in addition to watching videos and reading tutorials for the work to pay off and start to feel natural. Many years ago, I launched a sports blog. I found that the best way to generate enough content to produce ad revenue was to write multiple articles in the morning before work. I committed to that habit and was able to easily hit 4 to 6 articles per day after a while.

But with all the good that comes from these habits, there's a pitfall that is important to pay attention to. Going back to the opening of this article, not all habits are addictions. Again, this is good. But that means that when you break the habit, you may not fall naturally back into it.

Let's bring it back to working out. If you have committed to a Monday through Friday cycle of working out and built a habit around that, what happens when you go on vacation or get sick? Is it easy to just pick back up and maintain the habit? My guess is you're like me and it's very hard to get back into working out after you've taken time off. This happens to me even if I take one extra day off.

Breaking a habit goes beyond just exercise. Learning a new language, learning to code, doing the dishes before bed, taking your pills, etc. All of these things benefit from habit-forming processes, but they also run the risk of falling out of sync if the habit is broken.

The great thing about recognizing how habits help and how breaking them can hurt is you can plan around change. Mentally, you can prepare yourself if you know you're going to have to break an important habit. It's still going to be difficult to get back into the swing of things whenever you resume the habit-based activity, but if you're prepared for that difficulty, it will make it easier to rebuild the habit.

Habits can be our friends or our enemies. It's important to recognize them when they are helping us, and plan for when those good habits ultimately get broken.