Habits. It’s one of the buzzwords in certain spheres.
I rest my case.
While I find some of these resources helpful, I think it’s also necessary to talk about another side of habits.
One of the main life lessons I’ve learned is that hardly anything is black and white. It’s not fifty, but a gazillion shades of grey.
The same is true with habits. Habits are not just good or positive.
No, in reality, supposedly healthy habits can be unhelpful, and vice versa.
My aim here is not to smash habits. I see the value of habits and how much good they can do (if approached correctly). I know that sometimes a simple habit shift can improve our life exponentially.
I’m even a certified habit coach who helps people develop better habits.
Despite (or because?) of all this, the idolization of habits annoys me. Let's look at the five main reasons why:
1. Supposedly healthy habits might actually be unhealthy
Some habits may not be good for us, at all.
One such example may be the habit of making a bed.
This habit helps instill discipline and order, as well as create the impression of cleanliness. There’s a reason why the military and boarding schools insist on made beds.
At the same time, there might be other reasons not to make your bed. As a child, I never developed the habit of making my bed in the morning.
Now, you could never accuse my parents of not being good with structures and responsibilities (they’re also awesome human beings but that’s beside the point). My mom used to be a judge and my dad’s a former military lawyer. Oh, and did I mention they’re German? My point here is that it doesn’t get a lot more über-structured and responsible than them.
That said, my parents never encouraged, let alone forced me to make my bed. Only later in life, after reading some stories about how making a bed should be part of your morning routine did I start doing this every day. And I actually like it. Making a bed feels like a good start into the day. So, should I continue to do it?
Well, it turns out that my parents may have had a point when they didn’t force me to make my bed in the morning. According to a 2006 study, making your bed could make it a more cozy breeding ground for dust mites.
(Also, why is that my parents are always right?!?)
2. Habits can have unintended side effects
The second reason why we need to revisit habits is that they can have unintended side effects. Let me begin with a personal example — my fitness life. Last summer, decided to increase the length of my daily workouts. While I wasn’t a couch potato before, I suddenly got really, really active to complete a 2-month challenge.
Sounds like a positive habit, right?
Except I realized that my shorter workouts had actually worked so much better for me. Longer workouts had me feeling more tired which made it harder to push myself in my business or in other areas of my life.
And, supposedly to replace the additional calories I was burning, I ended up eating like a teenage boy.
And, wow, was it annoying to always be hungry!
In addition to that, I realized that I could use the extra time I was spending on longer workouts for something else.
So long story short, my supposedly healthy change to take my exercise habit to the next level had a number of negative side effects. Truth be told, I realized that couldn’t wait to complete the challenge and switch back to my more sustainable daily workout pace, the one where I actually enjoyed exercising. You know what else I really enjoyed? Fasting for 12 hours which is typically easy for me. Well, during my 2-month challenge, it wasn’t easy at all. Back when my increased exercise regime led my metabolism into a personal identity crisis (which it resolved by assuming I was a teenage boy, not an adult woman), I found myself eating all the time. Naturally, this made it much harder to stick with the 12-hour fast.
So my supposedly good habit actually had unintended negative consequences for my other good habit.
(On the plus side, my arms did look impressive when I worked out that hard. )
3. Habits don’t work like magic
It seems that habits have become to the self-growth community what “the law of attraction” is to new age folks.
People who are too rational to believe in woo-woo stuff can still find themselves prone to the belief that merely developing the right habits can make us successful.
Is that really that different than magical thinking?
But causation is not correlation, and habits don’t have the magical abilities of Harry Potter.
Just because “_________” (insert name of random successful person) does “_________” (insert habit) doesn’t mean that taking on that habit will make you successful like them.
Case in point: So, Apple’s CEO Tim Cook reportedly gets up at 3:30 am.
You know who else gets up at that time? Bakers. That’s right. Getting up at 3:30 am won’t magically transform us into Apple’s CEO (or any other CEO, for that matter), just as it won’t morph us into a baker. Also, whoever decided that waking up in the middle of the night to work for a company that created a product that has ultimately made the world a more miserable place by letting us be plugged in all the time is the epitome of success?
(I’m not trying to be negative here. I do think Apple has done good things for the world by helping us be more connected, I just don’t like the fanboy culture that surrounds it and that ignores that their products also have negative aspects or consequences. The Fairphone is just way more in alignment with the idea of business as a force for good.)
In contrast to addictive smartphones, the freshly baked buns an old-school baker reliably add something nice to my life, and, presumably, to the lives of others (as long as they’re not gluten-intolerant).
For instance, sometimes people gather around the breakfast table to share buns that someone just picked up from the local baker. Isn’t that also making a positive difference in the world? So, if you want to tell me how getting up in the middle of the night will help me make a positive difference in the world, please don’t overlook the baker example.
4. Habits are shallow
This, I believe, is the most important reason why we need to revisit habits. It’s because habits are shallow. Some people say how we call something doesn’t matter, that it’s all semantics.
I disagree. Words have a resonance and power of their own.
For many people, using the right word is important. For instance, a colleague once told me about a time he ran into an old acquaintance. The acquaintance had asked: “So, how is your girlfriend doing?” My colleague felt the need to clarify that she was actually his wife now because it seemed so inaccurate to think of her as “only” his girlfriend. We then talked about how the word “wife” captured the depth and commitment of their relationship in a very different way than the word “girlfriend.” I think the same is true when it comes to habits.
My hypothesis is that the most helpful repeated activities are actually not habits, but practices.
Practices are the activities people have the deepest and most committed relationship with. Let’s take the example of meditation. Sure it could be approached as a habit — but it feels a bit “off” to talk about meditation in the same way we talk about a smoking habit. Meditation is of prehistoric origin. It can be part of one’s spiritual path in life and has been used by seekers to get closer to Enlightenment. Surely that deserves a different term than the measly word “habit.”
A meditation habit sounds shallow and empty. In contrast, a meditation practice, just like a Yoga practice, appears solid and like the person doing it has a deeper understanding of what it means and how it should be used. It’s maybe not a coincidence that the relevant Wikipedia article defines meditation as a “practice.”
How about writing? Again, it seems more fitting to talk about a “writing practice,” not a writing habit.
Exercise? Or martial arts? Well, I’ve accidentally been hit in the face once or twice in the midst of martial arts training. I don’t know about you but I‘d rather not make a habit of it.
So, let’s be real here. Habits don’t change the world (except bad habits, like overeating and smoking). Positive change comes from practices.
5. Not all habits are created equally and habits by themselves won’t make you happy
Some habits have a lot more impact than others. For instance, there’s one habit that always has a positive impact on me: meditation.
Other habits? Well, they’re sometimes helpful for me, sometimes a waste of time.
If I look at my own life, the following contribute the most to my happiness:
- having a great relationship with my partner,
- doing work I love to do,
- being at peace with and having a great relationship with my family,
- being (mostly) at peace with myself.
None of these are closely linked to habits. I don’t have a relationship habit, I have a relationship. If anything, these factors in my life are linked to practices, including working through uncomfortable emotions and continuing to grow.
Let’s turn it over to you. Here are a few questions to ask yourself about habits:
- Are there some (supposedly positive) habits that have negative side effects? For instance, is your top-notch morning routine (that’s supposed to help you feel more calm and positive) negatively interfering with your family life and thus actually adding stress to your life?
- Are there some (supposedly positive) habits that don’t give you the bang for the buck? For instance, are there some habits that may have worked for you in the past but that aren’t that appropriate to where you are right now? Are there some habits that sometimes make a difference, but sometimes not? If so, can you identify when they help?
- Are there some habits you have that would more appropriately be thought of as a practice?For instance, how would it feel to have a meditation practice instead of a meditation habit? How would it be to have a writing habit instead of a writing practice?
- Based on your answers to these questions, are there any changes you want to make? For instance, are there some supposedly positive habits you want to kick to the curb?
So, should we believe the habit hype?
Personally, I happen to think that
practice eats habit for breakfast.
And yes, you can quote me on that. (In fact, please do.)
Now excuse me while I start my exercise practice.
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