Habit Killers: Four Fundamental Mistakes That Destroy Habit Growth

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Stephen Guise has written multiple posts on this blog about his “mini habits” concept.

Today he talks about four mistakes (that you might be making), that are real habit killers which can hurt your chances at developing a positive habit.  To learn more about Stephen’s work, check out this book: Mini Habits: Smaller Habits. Bigger Results.

Habits are the pinnacle of self-development. What else can beat doing the right behaviors automatically?

That’s why it’s a big mistake not to aggressively pursue the development of good habits. Another mistake is going about that pursuit the wrong way.

To maximize your chances for success at habit development, make sure you don't make these common mistakes, or you'll have trouble getting your good habits to stick.

4 Mistakes that Stop You from Building Good Habits

Mistake #1: You Let Your Goal Overpower Your Willpower

Willpower strength is somewhat “flexible” with the mindset, but overall, it behaves like a muscle, in that you can't lift a “300-pound goal” if you have weak willpower. An example of this would be a non-reader suddenly trying to read a book every day.

More than 80 studies have examined the phenomenon that when we use willpower to force action (or inaction), we have less of it later. But researchers have also found that when we use willpower strategically and mindfully, it gets stronger. You can see why willpower is so often compared to a muscle: it fatigues, yet gets stronger with consistent use.

Willpower depletion (also known as “ego depletion”) is the number one reason people fail to form habits, and it's easy to see how it happens. Before you undertake any new goal, whether it's to write a book or develop healthier eating habits, your motivation is at its peak.

In this state of excitement about permanent change, we make the mistake of setting our goals based on what we want at this time, and what we feel is possible. This is similar to shopping when you're hungry. Later, when you're not so hungry, you'll think, “wow, this is too much.”

I've said it many times that the most important concept to understand in habit formation is that the quantity of what you do matters far less than the consistency at which you do it. In other words, it's better to do one sit-up every day than to do ten sit-ups once a week. That's only seven sit-ups! Yes, but it's a sit-up every day. This is a pattern that can be recognized by the subconscious basal ganglia in your brain. Unlike once-in-a-while activities, it's eligible for becoming a habit!

The absolute best foundation for action in any area is having an existing habit there (even a small one). I've been working out hard about 4-5x a week lately. But I started by doing one push-up a day. After six months of that, I transitioned to the gym for 3x a week full workouts. After another few months of gym-going, I find myself naturally wanting more, and I can achieve more because I've got the foundation. If you trace it back, it was consistently doing one push-up daily that became the foundation for my bigger accomplishments today.

You can learn more about this topic by checking out our article on how understanding the habit loop can help you build habits.

Mistake #2: You Don’t Set Specific Intentions

If you want to form a habit, don't you dare be vague about it. The subconscious brain is a very precise…machine. It follows precise patterns that it recognizes from your life. If you “try to drink more water,” you're not being honest about what you really want. The reason we do this is often that we're scared of making that first mistake: we don't want to commit to something we can't achieve, and so setting a vague goal lets us off the hook if we don't do it well.

The problem with this is a lack of self-accountability. It's good to have a little bit of pressure (but not too much). Vague goals have no pressure to move you into taking specific action in a specific context, and so they're easy to ignore.

When does someone tell you they're going to “get in really good shape,” ask them exactly how they're going to do it: how often will they exercise? What type of exercise? For how long and how often? Many times, they won't be able to answer, because the vague statement made them feel good without actually meaning they had to do something about it.

Mistake #3: You Rely On Motivation For Taking Action

Keeping to the muscle analogy, motivation is like adrenaline, in that it can overcome weakness in a flash. High motivation to act precludes the need to use our willpower. If you already really want to write a novel more than anything else right now, you don't need to use willpower to force yourself to write.

So motivation is the key? As popular as “getting motivated” is (and it’s easy to understand why), it has a fatal flaw in regards to habit development. If we start out motivated for action, can't we just maintain that? Well, some people have done it, but it's a biological improbability. Here’s why…

Habits Are Emotionless

Studies show that habits are nearly emotionless behaviors. That's because they're automatic and subconscious. You can (and often will) perform a habit and be thinking about something else.

People miss spots when they brush their teeth because it’s a habit. They tend to brush them in the same exact pattern every time (while thinking about other things). If you dynamically and randomly brushed your teeth every time, you'd probably have better results. But it's really easy to slip into that habitual behavior of lower left for 15 seconds, lower right for 15 seconds, swing the brush around the whole bottom row, etc.

Do You Mix Up Motivation’s Two Definitions?

There's a definition of motivation that means your “reason to act.” My motivation (reason) to write this article is to help others, collaborate with SJ, and share and spread my views. Those are the reasons that hold true for every article I've written here.

I'm only talking about the other form of motivation here: willingness to act. My motivation to actually write these articles has fluctuated wildly from moment to moment!

This second definition of motivation is the fickle one. For example, when you're tired, your motivation to do active things will fall, and your motivation to sleep or rest will rise. This type of motivation is largely tied to your emotional state and energy levels.

Emotion-driven motivation is unpredictable in the short term, but otherwise, it follows a pattern.

The Unfortunate Trajectory Of Motivation

When you're first starting a new goal, you'll be excited and highly motivated to start strong. But the more consistent your progress, the lower your general motivation is likely to be over time. This is because of habits.

Remember, habits tend to lack emotion. And at some point, your behavior will transition from the conscious mind to the subconscious mind. This transition coincides with a transition of being more emotional to less emotional about the task. This means your motivation drops before the behavior is fully habitual (a bad combination if you’re relying on motivation to act).

The decreased emotion of habitual behaviors is anti-motivational and boring.

How many times have you failed a new goal or habit at around the two to the six-week mark? For me, it was always between two or three weeks where I'd give up from lack of motivation. Ironically, I quit because I was succeeding!

It’s been proven that enthusiasm wanes over time, and it’s been observed for the entire course of human history. In economics, they call it The Law of Diminishing Marginal Utility, which says that your eighth slice of pizza won’t be as satisfying as your first.

The secret of super athletes isn't that they're “super motivated.” Overall, they're motivated to succeed in their respective sports (that other definition of motivation), which helps, but the thing that really sets the elite apart is how they're able to train when they're bored out of their minds or tired. Their routines and schedules keep them in top shape.

Can you imagine an Olympic athlete telling his trainer that he “doesn’t feel like training today”? He’d get a spanking (or something). Super athletes don’t let their training schedule depend on their current motivation level, and that’s why they succeed.

Motivation is a sprinter, but for habits, you need a marathoner.

Mistake #4: You Give Up Before The Habit Takes Hold

The whole idea of good habits is to have them for the rest of your life. Once the habit is set, it's much easier to maintain it as it has become that rare behavior that is “accepted” consciously AND subconsciously.

So the science on habit formation, which has found that habits take 18 to 254 days to develop (with an average of 66 days), is mostly irrelevant. Whether or not you find the magic number of days, isn’t it still the same goal of always doing this positive behavior?

This is why I don’t agree with aiming for X days in a row. You need a strategy that can take you to the point of habit, wherever it is. Since that point varies so much, you really need a strategy that can work forever, even if habits were impossible to form.

Final Thoughts

That strategy for me is Mini Habits, an example of which is the one push-up a day I mentioned earlier. Mini habits are structured to avoid all four mistakes mentioned above.

  1. Since a mini habit is “too small to fail,” you won't have a problem with overreaching your willpower strength (though too many mini habits at once can do this). Since you can always reach your target, and you're doing it every day, it's simple to form a foundation for just about any positive behavior you want to add to your life.
  2. Mini Habits are specific. You'll say, “I'm going to write 50 words every day.” Or if you choose a cue-based plan, you'd say, “I'm going to write 50 words at noon every day.” This holds you accountable, but it's with a goal you can crush!
  3. The Mini Habits book has a discussion on motivation and willpower, and it's 100% in the corner of willpower. These daily habits are so tiny that it's not worth it to bother with unreliable motivation when you can simply force yourself to do it. The willpower cost is low, making it extremely reliable and effective.
  4. You can do mini habits forever. 

This is why I and many others have had such profound success with this strategy. It's the surest way I know to develop a habit, and well, it's the only way that worked for me (SJ’s Habit Stacking idea is another solid method with similar benefits).

To see how mini habits can grow into something much bigger and better, see my introductory Mini Habits post right here on Develop Good Habits. Or if you want the full strategy with dozens of supporting studies and specific implementation instructions, check out the entertainingly-written Mini Habits book on Amazon. Mini Habits is the #1 rated habit book on Amazon among top sellers at 4.8 stars.

13 thoughts on “Habit Killers: Four Fundamental Mistakes That Destroy Habit Growth”

  1. Hey Stephen (and Steve!),

    I am familiar with your concept of mini habits since before. I think it’s really useful for implementing things that you know you should be doing, but don’t feel like. As opposed to the things you don’t know you should be doing, and want to make into habits.

    I hope that makes sense!

    Keep it up guys.

  2. Some really great insights in this post, Stephen! As a recovering over-ambitious habit-former, your point that “the quantity of what you do matters far less than the consistency at which you do it” really resonated with me.

    I feel like I will frequently over-stress my willpower muscle because of surges of that adrenaline like motivation. At the point when motivation is at its peak, you’re right: I’m totally emotional and giddy about this new thing I’m going to do. But as it turns into developing a habit, that emotional high turns into an emotional drag and I’m looking left, right & center for excuses to quit.

    What’s interesting is as excited as you are when your motivation is high almost matches how “done” and resentful you are when your motivation is low. It seems like both are laden with emotion, but for habit forming you need to figure out how to get the emotion out to make it “automatic and subconscious”.

    I’m going to try implementing Mini Habits for the next time I want to introduce something new into my lifestyle. Such a good idea and you word it very well in your writing.

    • Hi Lucy,

      Those are some excellent insights about how the motivation process tends to work. I like that you suggested “getting the emotion out” of the picture. That’s really important I think, because if you can make progress on a non-emotional foundation, then you’re in perfect position to succeed with making it habitual. You won’t be knocked off balanced when motivation inevitably shrinks.

      I’m glad to hear you’re going to try out Mini Habits. I think you’ll be pleasantly surprised by the results! Thanks for the great comment.

  3. This was a much needed post for me right now. It is important to remember as you say that you won’t always be emotionally motivated to do something, but if it becomes a habit you will do it anyways. I’m going to try this mini habit thing of yours for working out.

    • Sebastian, my first mini habit was one push-up a day. That was 1.5 years ago. Today, I’m in the best shape of my life and go to the gym 4-5 days a week.

      I did at least one push-up for 6 months.
      Then I realized I had whittled down my resistance to exercise in general, so I made the jump to the gym 3x a week.
      Over the last 3 months, my desire to work out even more has increased, so I’ve been going 4-5 times a week

      Once the results start showing up on your body, it’s very motivating! But even today for example, I didn’t feel like going. I went and loved it. Motivation is tricky because you don’t know when it will show up or leave, so I just ignore it now. More important than motivation is how resistant you are to an activity. I realize these are on the same scale, but resistance is the key factor in willpower requirement, and mini habits is a willpower strategy. That’s why it’s so effective: it doesn’t motivate you as much as it eats away at your resistance (which is what really stops us).

  4. Stephen – this is great. I think there is a kind of dopamine surge some people get from the very act of making a new habit. It’s addictive. Then they fail to push through and make new mini habits, suffer, and then get a surge with the next habit.

    I think the trick is to get a reward from your mini habits. Achieving the goal is a bonus.

    • Hugh, I know EXACTLY what you mean. I cycled through this program for 10 years trying to change myself. Once the shiny new change became monotonous, I dropped it. Then it got shiny again. Then I dropped it two weeks later.

      Rewards are great to reinforce the behavior. Mini habits have a stronger built-in reward than most habit plans. Being instead of doing your required 30 minute workout today, you can do your required one push-up and then BLOW IT OUT OF THE WATER. *SPLASH* It feels so good to overachieve and routinely crush your goals as opposed to fighting to meet the minimum, which is most strategies you’ll read about.

      Mini habits generate strong self-efficacy like nothing else.

  5. Hi!

    Loved the article. A very accurate diagnosis of the problems I face while trying to make new habits. I overdo it. Big Time. I would have this sudden surge of motivation on some days and run 10km in a go and feel good about it for a few hours. But when I try to imagine to do it again and on a regular basis, I just can’t. I tend to be overly ambitious when it comes to developing new habits and when I saw your mini habit strategy, I felt that it wasn’t enough and needed to be bigger. But when I do make it bigger, It seems too big and I can’t follow it. Any advice for this lost cause?

    Avi

    • Avi,

      It doesn’t need to be bigger! You need consistency in order to change permanently. If you have a mini habit of say, jogging to your mailbox every day, then you’ll develop that habit.

      Mini habits don’t hold you back because it’s a system designed to encourage “bonus reps.” So if your goal to to run to the mailbox, you’re free to run 10km. The next day when you’re tired and less motivated, you might then simply jog to your mailbox and go back inside, or run for 5 minutes and stop. Doing a little bit is always better than doing nothing, and when it’s toward building a healthy habit, it’s even more valuable.

      Mini habits are for building habits, but they’re also daily sparks. You might not think you want to run today, but when you do your required mini habit because it’s too easy to fail, you might find yourself running well beyond your initial expectations. I can’t tell you how many times this has happened to me (several times a week for months).

      Give it a try and be patient. The true home run is developing a habit, not having an individual great day between bad days. Consider me: I went 10 years sporadically exercising. Then I started doing one push-up a day. 1.5 years later, I’m the best shape of my life, exercising 4-5 times a week.

      Good luck!

      Stephen

    • Hey Stephen,

      Thank you for the advice! I’ll be sure to try that. As you said, consistency is the key to developing habits. And sometimes, I’ll just have to push through, regardless of how I’m feeling.

      Avi

  6. I have been stunned by the effectiveness of your techniques. I have overcome several blocks of resistance with your advice combined with sj’s methods. In the last two days I have gone to bed earlier, got up earlier, got going quicker, watched that one press up and one sit up expand, drunk more water, recovered some of my flextime deficit and discovered how I can turn around my reluctance to write. Tonight I find myself writing 50 words on a kindle which is not easy when you have only recently started using it. I have tried and failed in four previous months to write four batches of 500 words in a month when 50 words a day would have given me momentum. I cannot believe how years have passed and how many books I have read before discovering such life changing and effective techniques. I could kick myself but then that might become a habit too.

  7. Thank you for the article, it’s very interesting. However my question is how to make NOT doing something a habit – giving up a bad habit? Do you have insights into that too?

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