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What Are the Biggest Mistakes People Make When Forming Habits?

Most people forget to make a distinction between habits and routines.


When it comes to habit formation, what do people think will work, but usually doesn’t? originally appeared on Quora, the place to gain and share knowledge, empowering people to learn from others and better understand the world. You can follow Quora on Twitter, Facebook, and Google Plus.

Here’s the biggest issue I’ve seen in my work: most people forget to make a distinction between habits and routines. For most people, saying they want to form a habit, is subtext for I want to do something hard without effort. By definition, a habit is a behavior done with little or no conscious thought.

What’s a good example? Washing your hands. Brushing your teeth. You don’t face a bout of anxiety when you have to do either of those, and if you’re like me, you do them unthinkingly.

A behavior that requires you to think or exert effort is not a habit. And a lot of times, I see people try to turn things like going to the gym or studying into “habits.” And the problem is that they end up blaming themselves—when the real culprit is that they’ve been trying to solve a problem with the wrong tool.

If you have found a behavior that you’d like to make into a routine, how do you do that? First, start by holding the time for it. Set an “implementation intention,” which is just a fancy way of saying that you will plan what you are going to do and when you are going to do it. Even something as simple as holding the time for doing something has been shown to boost the likelihood of following through.

Second, brace for discomfort. Appreciate that trying to establish a routine is going to be tough—and then find ways to reframe the difficulty. If you want to go to the gym regularly but dislike exercise, find ways to see the whole experience differently. Envision every drop of sweat as a sign your body is getting stronger. Learn to see the burn as tiny muscle fibers getting better at doing their job. Perception is a matter of perspective, and no matter the routine, you can choose to re-imagine your discomfort as a good thing.

Third, use accountability. Find a buddy to keep you in check. Use systems to make sure you perform your routine regularly. For instance, if writing or exercising daily is a routine you want to adopt, finding someone to hold you accountable will increase your odds of success. You can pre-commit to a routine by using software like Forest on your phone and Freedom on your computer to prevent distraction and keep you on task.

Fourth, have some perspective. Accept that it’s perfectly okay for some behaviors to remain routines that are tough to do. Don’t get overly frustrated if you still dread going to the gym. By focusing on forming solid routines through the steps outlined above, you’ll have a better chance of sticking to what’s important to you, while increasing the odds that some routines may evolve into habits.

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