Avoid These 5 Traps that Can Destroy Your Good Habits.

Every Wednesday is List Day, or Tip Day, or Quiz Day.

Today: Avoid these five habit traps — they can destroy your good habits.

When we’re trying to master our habits, it’s important to be aware of the justifications or arguments that we sometimes invoke that interfere with keeping a good habit.

They slip in so easily and quickly, it can be hard to spot them. Be on the look-out for these five popular lines of thoughts:

1. Thinking, “Well, now that I’ve slipped up and broken my good habit, I might as well go all the way.”

I remind myself, “A stumble may prevent a fall.” Because of the colorfully named “what the hell” phenomenon, a minor stumble often becomes a major fall; once a good behavior is broken, we act as though it doesn’t matter whether it’s broken by a little or a lot. “I didn’t do any work this morning, so what the hell, I’ll take the rest of the week off and start on Monday.” “I missed my yoga class over spring break, so what the hell, I’ll start again in the fall.” It’s important to try to fail small, not big.

2. Thinking, “If I really beat myself up when I break a good habit, I’ll do a better job of sticking to it.”

Although some people assume that strong feelings of guilt or shame act as safeguards to help people stick to good habits, the opposite is true. People who feel less guilt and who show compassion toward themselves in the face of failure are better able to regain self-control, while people who feel deeply guilty and full of self-blame struggle more.

3. Thinking, “Sure, I’m not sticking to the habit that’s meant to keep me productive, but look how busy I am.”

Working is one of the most dangerous forms of procrastination.

4. Thinking, “Of course I usually stick to my good habits, but in this situation, I can’t be expected to keep it up.”

We’re all adults, and we can mindfully make exceptions to our good habits, but alas, everything counts.  Loopholes like “It’s my birthday,” “I’m sick,” “It’s the weekend,” “I deserve it,” “I’ve been so good,” “You only live once,” are loopholes, meant to excuse us from responsibility. But nothing’s off the grid. Nothing stays in Vegas.

5. Thinking, “I love my good habit so much, and I get so much satisfaction from it, that now it’s okay for me to break that habit.”

One danger point in habit-formation is the conviction that a habit has become so ingrained that we can safely violate it: “I love my morning writing sessions so much, I’d never give them up,” “I stopped eating cereal two years ago, so now it’s okay for me to eat it.” Unfortunately, even long-standing habits can be more fragile than they appear, so it pays not to get complacent.

What have I missed?

As I’ve mentioned before, my forthcoming book, Better Than Before, describes the multiple strategies we can exploit to change our habits. Habits–the most fascinating subject ever. To pre-order the book, click here. (Pre-orders give a real boost to a book, so if you’re inclined to buy the book, I really appreciate it if you pre-order it.)

Video: One Easy Way to Fight a Bad Habit? Make It Inconvenient.

I’m doing a video series in which I discuss the various strategies that we can use for habit-formation.

Habits are the invisible architecture of everyday life, and a significant element of happiness. If we have habits that work for us, we’re much more likely to be happy, healthy, productive, and creative.

My forthcoming book, Better Than Before, describes the multiple strategies we can exploit to change our habits. To pre-order, click here. (Pre-orders give a real boost to a book, so if you’re inclined to buy the book, I’d really appreciate it if you pre-order it.)

One of the most familiar, and most effective, is the simple, straightforward, powerful Strategy of Convenience. And its counterpart, which I talk about today, the Strategy of Inconvenience.

 

We’re far more likely to do something if it’s convenient, and far less likely to do something if it’s inconvenient, to an astounding degree. For instance, in one cafeteria, when an ice-cream cooler’s lid was left open, thirty percent of diners bought ice cream, but when diners had to open the lid, only fourteen percent bought ice cream, even though the ice cream was visible in both situations. People take less food when using tongs, instead of spoons, as serving utensils.

We can use this tendency to help strengthen our habits.

Have you ever made an activity less convenient, and in that way, strengthened a habit meant to help you control it?

What Appeals to You? Ditch Day, Catch-Up Day, or Mandatory Vacation Day?

When we’re tackling our habits, word matter.

Research shows that people who use language that emphasizes that they’re acting by their own choice and exercising control (“I don’t,” “I choose to,” “I’m going to,” or “I don’t want to”) stick to their habits better than people who use language that undermines their self-efficacy (“I can’t,” “I’m not allowed to,” or “I’m supposed to”). There’s a real difference between “I don’t” and “I can’t.”

For instance, I don’t eat sugar; I can eat sugar, but I don’t. In fact, I love not eating sugar!

Also, in my own mind, I try to replace “I have to” with “I get to” whenever possible. “I get to go the library today.” “I get to go to a parent coffee tomorrow.”

The very words we choose to characterize our habits can make them seem more or less appealing. “Engagement time” sounds more interesting than “email time.” “Playing the piano” sounds more fun than “practicing the piano.” And what sounds more attractive, a “personal retreat day” or a “catch-up day” or a “ditch day” or a “mandatory vacation day”? (People of different Tendencies might choose different terms.)

Would a person rather “take a dance class” or “exercise”? Some people like the word “quit,” as in “I’ve quit caffeine”; some are put off by its overtones of addiction. A woman told me, “I try not to use the words ‘forever’ and ‘never,’ but I like the word ‘permanent.’ ”

Do you make choices about the vocabulary you use, to help you master your habits?

To read more about this, check out Better Than Before, my book about when and why we change our habits. You can pre-order here – and if you’re inclined to buy the book, it really helps me if you pre-order. Don’t worry, you won’t be charged until it ships.

Guess: What Are the “Two Types of Perfect,” According to B. J. Novak?

“In my opinion, there are two types of perfect. The first is the type that seems so obvious and intuitive to you and everyone else that in a perfect world it would simply be considered standard; but, in reality, in our flawed world, what should be considered standard is actually so rare that it has to be elevated to the level of ‘perfect.’ This is the type of perfect that makes you and most other people think, ‘Why isn’t everything like this? Why is it so hard to find…’ a black V-neck cotton sweater, or a casual non-chain restaurant with comfortable booths, etc.–‘that is just exactly the way everyone knows something like this should be?’ ‘Perfect,’ we all say with relief when we finally find something like this that is exactly as it should be. ‘Perfect. Why was this so hard to find?’

“The other type of perfect is the type you never could have expected and then could never replicate.”

— B. J. Novak, “Sophia,” in One More Thing

I can’t resist quoting, too, from the last paragraph of Novak’s Acknowledgements. I thought this was so lovely. He has two pages thanking various people, including Mindy Kaling of course (I always think of these two together), and concludes:

“Josh Funk and Hunter Fraser: we haven’t been in touch in years, but you made me feel like the funniest kid in the world. I would stay up late on school nights to write things to try to make you laugh the next day in class, and you inspired the one piece of writing that I’ve ever felt qualified to give: write for the kid sitting next to you.”

This beautiful acknowledgement made me think of many things, but in particular, it reminded me that we never know how our actions and our words will affect other people. These two guys! Their enthusiasm may have been a crucial catalyst for Novak’s career.

 

Video: A Great Strategy To Fight Temptations? Distraction.

I’m doing a video series in which I discuss the various strategies that we can use for habit-formation.

Habits are the invisible architecture of everyday life, and a significant element of happiness. If we have habits that work for us, we’re much more likely to be happy, healthy, productive, and creative.

My forthcoming book, Better Than Before, describes the multiple strategies we can exploit to change our habits. To pre-order, click here. (Pre-orders give a real boost to a book, so if you’re inclined to buy the book, I’d really appreciate it if you pre-order it.)

Today, I’m talking about the Strategy of Distraction.

 

Whenever I’m tempted to break a good habit (or indulge in a bad habit, two sides of the same coin), I say to myself, “I can leave my desk—in fifteen minutes.” The delay of fifteen minutes is often long enough for me to get absorbed in something else. If I distract myself sufficiently, I may forget about a craving entirely.

When we distract ourselves, we purposefully redirect our thoughts, and by doing so, we change our experience.

Of course, it’s not enough to be distracted; we must distract ourselves in the right way. Checking Pinterest isn’t a good distraction for the person who wants to break the habit of late-night online shopping; reading a mystery would work better.

Also, making a purely mental shift can be difficult, so distraction works best when it involves some physical activity: walking around the block, woodworking, or cleaning out the kitty-litter box. Of course, if it’s an enjoyable distraction, such as playing catch with a child, so much the better.

Using the Strategy of Distraction doesn’t mean trying to suppress an unwelcome thought, but rather deliberately shifting attention. When we try to squash a particular thought, we may trigger the “ironic rebound,” so that paradoxically, we think about it all the more.

Although people often assume that cravings intensify over time, research shows that with active distraction, urges—even strong urges—usually subside within about fifteen minutes.

On a different subject, in the video, I mention that readers can request free, signed, personalized bookplates to put in their books. If you’d like to email me your request, for you or for gifts, click here. U.S. and Canada only — sorry about that.

Do you use the Strategy of Distraction to help you master your habits?