Going Through the Motions (The Secret of Successful Habit Building)

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In today's post, Nick shares his thoughts on “going through the motions” and why it is the secret of successful habit building.

“Why are you putting yourself through that? Are you nuts?”

We had hardly sat down and ordered our drinks before my friend ushered his question with an incredulous look in his eyes. I hadn't seen Marcus in a while since he lives in London, but he had obviously been reading my blog…

Not that I blame him. Most people react pretty skeptically when they learn about my habit regimen – a list of daily habits that I follow religiously. The range is pretty diverse, from ‘eat a Paleo diet’ or ‘learn one new word of Russian’ to ‘talk to two strangers in the street’. To top it off, every single time I break a habit, I have to pay $100 to a previously chosen anti-charity. Granted, that's a little bit on the extreme side but it DOES do wonders for your habit compliance.

Well, Marcus didn't quite see it that way. He had quite a few criticisms but eventually, it boiled down to the following: “Why do you make such a fuss about doing every one of your habits every single day? That takes away all flexibility – just decide what you are going to work on this day and then get as much done as you can.”

I could see where he was coming from. All of us like to get the feeling that, when executing a certain task, we are accomplishing something. We want to make progress and a lot of it! And if that feeling of progress is not there if it feels like we are just doing a task because we ‘should’ be doing it, we tend to abandon the task – after all, what's the point of just going through the motions?! It seems like a waste of time.

But this is exactly the point where Marcus and most people averse to habit building go wrong: ‘going through the motions’ is not a waste of time – it's the secret to success when it comes to habit building. The jackhammer of productivity. The pot of gold at the end of the rainbow – oh, you get the picture… It's where it's at!

Let me explain:

[Tweet “Habit success is not being effective every day; it is showing up every day”]

As much as all of us would like to see significant progress with our chosen projects every day, that's simply unrealistic.

There will always be plenty of days where things are not ‘clicking’ for you:

Maybe you didn't get enough sleep the night before.

Maybe your attention is divided because of some family problem.

Maybe you just feel darn lazy that day.

….It does not matter: these kinds of days will always be part of the productivity equation and highly productive people know that and take that into account.

I would go as far as saying that five out of seven days a week might be ‘off days’, where you are not seeing much return on investment for sticking to your habit regimen. But by no means are these days wasted! Actually, these days serve an extremely important function – as Jerry Seinfeld famously put it, they are about “not breaking the chain”. In other words, you are programming yourself to uphold your habits under any circumstances, no matter how tired you feel, no matter how divided your attention is. So with every ‘off day’ the habit in question will be ingrained in you further! That is what we are after – by comparison, making progress with your chosen project is completely secondary. Kinda ‘meta’, eh?

[Tweet “It's okay to uphold a habit symbolically, doing it daily is what matters”]

To take this even further: on my off days, I will often NOT EVEN TRY to be effective with the task in front of me. I know this goes against everything we are taught, as the mantra of ‘You should always give it your best’ and give 100% or nothing at all is so commonplace in European and American cultures.

I warn you though… don't fall for it! If you take that mantra seriously, you run the risk of burning yourself out in the long run.

Instead, we are just trying to uphold the habit, even if it's just symbolically. This could mean me opening my textbook, reading one or two sentences, maybe making a note in Evernote – I just fulfilled my daily ‘work on your PhD thesis first thing in the morning’ habit, in under two minutes. (Note: see some more good study routines here)

I have another habit that states: ‘do a basic kettlebell/bodyweight routine three times a week’. On good days, that means me going to the gym and doing a solid 30-40 min high intensity workout, pushing myself to muscle failure several times. But on off days, I might as well just do a set of push-ups and some wall sitting at home, both done in less than 5 min. You see how this is working? (Note: see some more daily workout routine habits here)

It is all about being ready when the ‘right’ day comes around, but making sure minimum requirements are reached.

All of this might seem slightly insane to ‘normal’ people. Remember my friend, Marcus? He couldn't grasp why I am so obsessed with just upholding all of my different habits on any given day. For example, why bother with working on my PhD thesis for just a few minutes at all, if you have an off day?! Why not resume working on it again for real, when a better day comes around? The answer is quite simple: you need to be ready when the right day comes around. Your habit already needs to be in place, so when that fabled fountain of youth of a day arrives, you will be prepared to make the most of it, instead of spending the day at the park. In essence, on five out of seven days, we are priming ourselves for the remaining two.

Still, sound too artificial to you? Then, really, ask yourself: are YOU currently as effective as you think you could be? Do you currently make the most of your ‘productive’ days, when they come around? Are you currently able to balance different important areas of your life, like eating healthily, working out, making professional progress, acquiring new skills? If your answer to any of these questions was ‘no’, your solution to being extraordinarily productive is ‘going through the motions’, period. Yes, it might seem a little bit artificial at first, doing the same things, again and again, every day, not paying much attention to the volume of work you get done. But the habit game is won in the long run, not by just looking at a single day. What we are trying to do here is to program ourselves into doing things regularly, things that are crucial to our success in life, but which we are hesitant to do naturally. And that self-programming is accomplished by ‘going through the motions’, every day.

In the end, Marcus agreed with me to give habit building a try and I think that is the most sensible way of going about it. What do you have to lose? Nothing. And what could you potentially gain? Extraordinary success in all important areas of your life. Just make sure to start with one habit at a time and then add more as you along. And remember: going through the motions is not a waste of time, it's where it's at. Learn to appreciate those ‘mindless’ phases and in the long run, your results will skyrocket.

About the Author

Nicholas is a blogger and self-improvement fanatic. After building one of the first and biggest Mixed Martial Arts academies in Germany, he also started working as a dating and relationship coach, with national and international media appearances. His writing can be found at his blog nicholasdrillman.com. You can also stay in touch with Nicholas on Facebook and Twitter.

6 thoughts on “Going Through the Motions (The Secret of Successful Habit Building)”

  1. Great stuff Nick!

    Habit building does indeed require a lot of discipline and I am in awe of how you try to discipline yourself through the $100 penalty. That’s a bit over the top for me but that only shows how dedicated and serious you are with this little project of yours so keep it up.

    • Thank you for the feedback Noel! And you are right, I tend to be a little bit on the extreme side with everything I do 😉 But you could easily come up with a substitute for the $100 punishment! How about “Do 10 push ups every time you break a habit?” Or “Don’t watch TV / check Facebook for the rest of the day every time you break a habit?” I think there are many possibilites to use the concept of self-punishment productively.

  2. I can’t imagine doing the $100 thing myself – but I do agree that it would be huge motivation to be compliant!

  3. What a synchronicity, Next month I publish a book titled “The Art of Persistence.” Not that persistence comes down just to habits and streaks (chains), but they are a big part of it.
    One quote from the book: “Showing up is a prerequisite to success.”

    I cultivate my streaks, I have at least 15 habits with 100+ streaks. And I answered to all your questions “yes” (apart from “Still sound too artificial to you?” of course 😀 )

    And that provides results.

    I don’t exactly agree that showing up is “the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow.” You may show up and get no results or not proportional results. I think the opposite tells the whole story: don’t show up and you are GUARANTEED to get no results.

    • Hey Michal, sounds like a very interesting book you have coming! And you are right, technically your assessment is more precise:
      “You may show up and get no results or not proportional results. I think the opposite tells the whole story: don’t show up and you are GUARANTEED to get no results.”

      But you know what? At least for myself, I would say that the results almost take care of themselves, once you show up. Not every time of course, but often enough. So for starters, I think the most bang for your buck is to be had by just going through the motions, every day. You can still optimize for methods and output later.
      But that’s really obsessing about details, I think essentially both of us are on the same page. Looking forward to the publication of your book!

  4. Hi Nicholas,

    It is absolutely true and well said when you express that if we do something, we always want that something to show results soon. If we do it without concrete results, we will think it is due to mere obligation and therefore we may feel like wanting to just stop it. This can happen especially when we feel not in the mood, having a lot of thoughts or exhausted. But if we decide to stop, then that something finally won’t turn into a habit that produces results at all, and every effort we have made previously becomes in vain since we break the chain.

    As an example, although experiencing an unexpected and unpleasant event, we must still do the best to perform our routines every day. So if there is our family member who develops illness, apart from taking care of him or her, we must keep working, eating and drinking, washing the dishes, taking a bath, paying the bills on time and so forth, instead of dwelling in sadness and not getting them done. This is because if we fail to perform the routines even only for a day, then on the next day we will likely feel more powerless to do them and new problems eventually accumulate, making us feel even harder to look after our ill family member.

    Hence, we have to do our good habits every day though there are often no results or something we regard as progress. This does not only need discipline for every single day, but also patience and faith that our habits will in time bear sweet fruits. Thank you for this post, as it has helped me realize more about my own patterns of thinking in performing my habits daily. Hope you always win the habit game and be an increasingly great master of your own habits. Glad to know you!

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