How long does it take to build a permanent habit? How long until you can reap the rewards of an exercise regiment or a work routine without having to think about it? These are questions practically everybody wants to know the answer to because these are questions that determine our livelihood.
Daily actions compound. Exercising once or getting a good few hours of work in on the rare occasion may feel like minor successes, like you’ve overcome some sort of internal resistance, but these things don’t really do much for you over the long-term unless they are repeated day in and day out. A habit means repetition, and repetition means practice, and practice means improvement, and improvement means results. Growth comes not from the exception but the rule. In this way, habits and the actions they produce are the smallest units of success. It’s no wonder, then, that as a culture, we are obsessed with how to build and sustain them.
B.F. Skinner was one of the most controversial psychologists of the 20th century. He was also one of the most influential. Human action, he believed, could be reduced down to simple, observable behaviors that scientists could study objectively, and much of our thinking about habits stem from his work. Now, this idea, of course, wasn’t new. He was building on the previous work of people like Ivan Pavlov and John Watson and Edward Thorndike who had made similar arguments, but Skinner took it to a whole new level in that he completely denied the role of emotions and thoughts and their power to influence how our body moves in the world.
In research done on rats and pigeons, he showed that animals respond to external stimuli in predictable ways depending on the external environment. This environment, then, could be shaped and molded to generate whatever outcome was reasonably desired in the subjects. If you want to inspire a new behavior, build a punishment and reward system to guide it into existence. If you want to strengthen or weaken a behavior, reinforce the benefit or cost associated with said behavior.
Anyone who has ever tried a diet of some kind or attempted to avoid some other temptation can attest to the elementary truth in Skinner’s behaviorism. If you have junk lying around in your house, you’re more likely to eat it. Solution? Don’t buy the junk.
While Skinner stumbled on an important truth about how we learn and what our behavior partially responds to, it’s clear that humans are slightly more evolved than mere reptiles who don’t experience mental gaps between input and output. Our body is a complex system regulated by a combination of thought and emotion. And while, yes, even many of these thoughts and emotions are themselves responses to habit loops, just as many of them emerge creatively to new and novel interpretations of the world. And most of them, in fact, are surface-level expressions of the conflicts and incoherences of our deeper, unconscious value systems.
For example, one of the reasons, I assume, that there is no clear consensus on how long it takes to form a habit is because this has nothing to do with the behavior pattern itself and everything to do with the underlying coherence of the values dictating that behavior. If you take two people who have never seriously exercised in their life but one of those people grew up in a household where it was instilled in them that their overall health was the most important thing in life, that what they ate mattered, and compare them to someone who feels like they should exercise more simply because everyone says they should even though it feels like a burden, I’d be willing to bet that there is likely an order of magnitude difference between both how they feel going into their routines and how likely they are to stick with it over the long-term.
In the first case, a deep cognitive and emotional association with health has been developed over the course of years and decades, whereas in the latter case a simple, conditioned monologue beyond the environment serves as motivation: “You should exercise because it’s good for you.” They can follow the exact same routine, with the exact same triggers all they want, but in the vast majority of cases, the results and the commitments of the first person will be vastly different from the results and the commitment of the second. The bottleneck isn’t behavior; it’s the mindset.
The problem with habits is that they are lagging indicators of our values (meaning they are supposed to measure the difference between who we say we are and what we do), but we tend to treat them as leading indicators of success (meaning we measure habits for the sake of measuring habits rather than deeply questioning why we do them). And to be sure, simply doing something enough, say, like exercise, and eventually enjoying it until it comes a value is a thing, and it can work, but it’s also completely mindless. In this case, you’re not choosing a value. You’re not making a deeper decision or developing agency. You are taking something someone has told you and forcing yourself through sheer determination to do it. And that’s fine, except that determination without guiding values can only take you so far. And if you don’t actually want to do it for its own sake, sooner or later, your mind is going to find a way to make you miserable doing it. This is especially problematic if this is your approach to everything.
You can even say that you love your work or that you keeping your body healthy is a personal value, but if there is immense resistance every time you want to take action towards those tasks, there is likely some deeper conflict that you haven’t fully resolved concerning your values and the decisions that have shaped those values. It’s easy to say you like doing something, but it’s quite another to truly know it deep in your bones.
This brings us to the paradox of habits, which is this: Habits are expressions of your values, but if your foundational values are sturdy and coherent enough then your life is better lived with a minimal number of routine habits. Habits should support your core decisions, not make them for you. When it comes to brushing your teeth every night, fine, doing it the same way, at the same time, every night, makes sense. But if the only way you can keep an exercise routine or stick to a particular diet or get yourself to work is to rigidly control your environment or to somehow trick yourself through sheer determination, then your agency is fragile, and the problem isn’t the habit but your core mindset regarding whatever the habit pertains to.
Perhaps a better way to think about all of this would be to shift from focusing on habits of behavior to habits of mind. Instead of forcing yourself to exercise every day, what you should instead do is work to become someone who deeply understands that this is your one and only body, and only you are responsible for treating it right. A habit of behavior might sustain you for a week or a month or even a year, but a good habit of mind will sustain you for the rest of your life. And it will do so fluidly, not making you feel like you are being temporarily oppressed by the rigidity of routine. It will adapt to the flow of the world, rather than forcing you against it.
At some point over the past 12 months, I picked up smoking. I had smoked casually for a few years in some social situations, but due to lifestyle changes, it became a habit. And not just a mild one. By early February, I was smoking between a pack or two a day. At home. When working. When out with friends or strangers or anyone in between.
I generally try to be conscious of my health, and as I realized that this was starting to get out of hand, I began to make some light changes, trying to ease off here and there, cut down where I could. But like most smokers, I liked smoking, and I’d begun to associate it with a certain calm, a moment of peace, away from the noise, away from the restlessness I’d feel in moments of boredom. Mostly, it was about boredom. And because it was about boredom, no matter how many environmental changes I made, when I’d feel this complex mix of feelings, I would find a way to stick a cigarette in my mouth. And, again, because it was about boredom and how well it satisfied that boredom, I began to tell myself some convoluted story about why this was fine in spite of the drawbacks without digging any further.
The trigger came a few months ago after a Muay Thai workout. My breath was suddenly a lot heavier than usual. And a few hours later, feeling the slight paranoia, I noticed that the nail on my right index finger was turning what looked like a shade of yellow. That evening, even the food tasted a little bland. And then, at night, my reflection showed a face and a head of hair oilier than what I usually remember looking at.
Naturally, none of these symptoms appeared out of the blue on that exact day. Nor is there any certainty that they had anything to do with the smoking. Nor is any one of them a huge deal. In fact, I’m sure I likely imagined a few of them. But it was enough to make me ask a different question: Do I actually like smoking enough to potentially compromise something I value as deeply as my body and its ability to experience the world, or am I taking the easy way out because I don’t want to deal with whatever the deeper conflict is when I’m drawn to put a cigarette in my mouth?
When it was clear that it was the latter, and that I was running away from my feelings of boredom (the solution to which was to do the work to pay more attention to my surroundings), I decided right then and there to stop. And I did, and I have. And I knew even then that this wasn’t another half-ass attempt like all of the other times because the clarity I gained from shifting my mindset meant that the temptation to pick it back up wouldn’t be there even if someone handed me a pack right now.
The problem with most attempts at habit change is that they focus on the behavior above the mindset. It’s easy to consume a list of five or ten habits that promise health, wealth, and happiness, but it’s a lot harder to go into your own mind and deal with the incoherence of values that stops you from doing what you should. It’s easier to have a decision be made for you than it is to find the courage to make the decision yourself.
Humans aren’t robots. We have agency. And every time you focus on a quick, easy fix without actually thinking, you deny the existence of that agency.
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