Making Habits Stick (Without More and More Willpower)

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There are some people who seem to live their lives with Rocky Balboa levels of discipline. But from what I can tell, my personal supply of willpower hovers around average… at best.

It’s not that I haven’t attempted to increase my discipline over the years. I’ve tried to apply many of the various tactics and strategies that I hear about or read in books. But eventually, after a few weeks, the excitement of the new approach wears off and my discipline reverts back to what feels like a personal baseline.

Despite my stubbornly average willpower, I have no complaints. I’m content with the present, but still growing. And thanks to a handful of good habits, I think I’ve managed to live a relatively productive, responsible, and purposeful life (so far).

So, what’s my trick?

The Hard Things You Nonetheless Enjoy

The trick, if you can even call it that, is that I have very intentionally designed my best habits to be as enjoyable as possible.

Instead of needing huge amounts of willpower to grit my way through activities I think I “should” be doing, I have inched my life more and more towards activities I already enjoy. Most of my discipline is reserved for “getting started” rather than “pressing on”.

This doesn’t mean I avoid hard things. That would be a moral failing.  Instead, I seek out the hard things that I nonetheless enjoy. Or I try to find the most enjoyable way to get any job done.

There will always be some necessary tasks that I don’t enjoy, and I do them anyway.

My point is not that we should selfishly avoid everything we don’t enjoy and make life harder for those around us— it’s simply a reminder that we’re much more likely to stick with our best habits if we enjoy them. And this benefit can come at no expense to others.

The concept is so simple that you’re probably already doing it. But you may not have awakened to it’s full potential and realized how many ways it can be applied.

Let me share a short story:

My Wife’s Flossing Habits

My wife, Mollie, has been a sporadic flosser for years. Never quite settling into the daily habit, but never throwing in the towel, either. However, I’ve noticed an interesting pattern recently: 

Whenever we have the slightly more expensive Glide dental floss, she flosses nearly every day and comments about how easy it is. When the good stuff runs out, we switch back to the old-fashioned string floss, and she starts making off-hand comments about the floss getting stuck between her teeth. Eventually, over time, the pace of flossing falls off again.

It’s easy for an outsider to see how simple this decision should be. Buy the good floss and take advantage of a great habit that will almost certainly save you money and misery in the long-run.

But sometimes we’re too close to our own habits to see the bigger picture. We define self-control narrowly in the sense of getting yourself to stick with something you don’t enjoy, rather than the broader sense of arranging your life in a way that maximizes the good you can do.

Both are indeed ways to practice self-control, but one requires an upfront investment of planning while the other requires an ever-expanding supply of will-power and grit.

Simple Habits I Enjoy

In my own life, there are many habits and responsibilities that I now look forward to. This doesn’t mean that it’s always easy to get started (I’m still human!), but I know that once I’m started I will want to keep going and when I’m done, I’ll be glad that I did. Here are a few specific ways I’ve made these routines more enjoyable:

  • Listening to my favorite music or an audiobook while I mow the lawn or wash the dishes. 
  • Mixing up my exercise routine and doing whatever I feel like doing that gets my body moving (stationary bike ride, long walk, a few sprints on the football field, body weight exercises, shooting hoops on the basketball court, or playing racquetball with a friend)
  • Choosing books and articles to read out of a sense of curiosity and pleasure, and not to be productive or sound smart.
  • Working on this blog in my spare time is one way I try to make a contribution to the world and it happens to be something I really enjoy doing.
  • When it comes to my diet, I try to avoid the extremes, and instead I mostly stick to the sweet spot of foods that I enjoy and are also reasonably wholesome. This isn’t a hard and fast rule, but generally makes up 80-90% of the foods I eat.
  • When it comes to my personal faith, instead of a strict, rigid schedule of reading and prayer— I have found ways to make it more personal and relational, and less about a specific item to check off my to-do list.
  • Working with people I respect and on projects that involve the intersection of systems and technology. It’s really easy for me to get motivated by such work, and so,  over the years, whenever I’ve had the opportunity, I’ve always chosen to move in this direction.

Conclusion

The ultimate goal of life is not ease and comfort. There has to be something beyond those things that you are living for. But, on the other hand, life doesn’t hand out bonus points for gritting your way through an activity.

Your body doesn’t stay more fit because you chose the exercise you hate vs the one you enjoy.

Your work isn’t more productive or meaningful because you forced yourself to do it.

Your relationships don’t become stronger without truly enjoying the company you keep.

In so many areas of life, there remains a significant advantage to those who stick with their good habits for decades. And the simplest way to achieve that end, short of a steady diet of Rocky movies, is to shape your habits so that you would be glad to live with them for decades.

Mike (and his wife, Mollie) blog at This Evergreen Home where they share their experience with living simply, intentionally, and relationally in this modern world. You can follow along by subscribing to their twice-weekly newsletter.

This story was originally published on ThisEvergreenHome.com.



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