Editor’s Note: This is a guest post from Tynan of Tynan.com.
Posts about habits are both my favorite posts to write, and my favorite posts to read on sites like Zen Habits. I believe managing your habits is the practical equivalent of molding who you are and who you will become. Today, though, I’m going to write about the destruction of habits.
Throughout my life I’ve implemented thousands of habits. Some are simple habits that could very well last my entire life, like meditating for five minutes before I check my email in the morning. Others, like my three month experiment with polyphasic sleep, are all-consuming. In between are habits like eating healthy, going to the gym, and writing daily. These habits often produce outsize rewards for the effort they require, but they do require a significant amount of effort. If I continued every one of my habits indefinitely, I would need five hundred hours each day to fit them all in.
So how do we decide when to give up a habit to make room for a new one, to accommodate growing responsibilities, or to just free up some time and focus?
I have a hard-and-fast answer that I use myself, which you may also find useful: I only quit habits when I don’t want to quit them anymore.
Liking a habit is the surest sign that you’ve spent enough time on the habit to get properly adjusted to it and to start reaping the benefits of it. Without hitting those two waypoints, it’s impossible to objectively assess whether a habit should be removed or not.
Three months ago I began working out. The first workout was fun, because I got that feel-good rush that rewards me for doing something good for myself. That high had worn off by third gym session. On the way home I was mentally drafting an email to my trainer, giving him several solid reasons I should quit.
All of my reasons were legitimate downsides of working out. It took a lot of time out of my day, caused me to sleep more, and made meal preparation a hassle. I have a lot of stuff going on, and those are serious concerns. The reason they’re invalid is because they’re not being properly weighed against the benefits. I was adjusting to a new routine, which is always difficult, and hadn’t gained any muscle yet.
Today these drawbacks still exist. I’ve gotten faster at meal preparation and have somewhat adjusted my sleep schedule, but the impact on my time is still significant. The reason I’m not mentally (or physically) drafting emails to explain why I’m quitting is because I now have the benefits to counteract the costs of working out. I’ve gained fifteen pounds, most of it muscle, have improved all of my lifts by significant amounts, and have strengthened my willpower.
I wouldn’t say that I like working out now, but I like the overall impact it has on my life. I genuinely want to keep doing it. If something should come up that requires me to sacrifice some of my time-consuming habits, I won’t mind putting exercise up for consideration, because I can be objective about the pros and cons. If I did quit for some reason, I’d also be leaving on a high note, making it easier to decide to get back into it later.
The opposite, quitting when you want to, is a terrible strategy. You end up putting in work, getting no results, quitting, and then moving on to the next thing. Your lasting impression of each habit is an unfair one which prejudices you against every trying it again. So stick with things when you don’t want to stick with them, and only consider quitting when you don’t want to quit. It may not sound like it, but you’ll be happier that way.