The forgotten key to forming new habits

Or, how I went from sedentary to working out 4x a week.

The forgotten key to forming new habits

When I was 11, I wanted to lose weight.[1] So, my dad (who also wanted to lose weight) told me he was going to start waking me up at 5 AM to run. I wasn’t an athletic kid, and my few athletic experiences weren’t much fun for me, but I was willing to try anything. The next morning, my dad woke me before dawn, opened up our garage door, and off we went. I tried keeping pace with my dad (not least because running by myself in the dark felt a little scary), but 11-year-old kids with asthma can’t keep up with grown men on a run. I was wheezing within ten minutes of starting.

We lived on a hill, so every run ended inevitably with a hill sprint. I got about halfway up the hill, felt like puking, and then walked light-headed back to my front door by myself. If I remember correctly, I puked on someone's front yard (sorry to whomever that was).

Needless to say, that was not the beginning of a new habit. I did it a handful of times, but after a while I refused to get up when my dad called. I learned to hate running.

The compound interest of habit-formation

We like to think that our lives are the result of our conscious choices, but that’s only indirectly true. In truth, our lives are the results of our habits. What we do automatically, unconsciously, without thinking—this is what makes our lives what they are. And that makes sense: psychologists, dietitians, and addiction specialists all know firsthand that our conscious willpower is incredibly limited. If we had to power every decision with pure willpower, we’d be completely exhausted by 11 AM.[2]

Behavioral experts recognize that habit formation is the key to transformation. If you want to change your life, change your routine.

The problem is that the math of habit formation is counter-intuitive. If I asked you to read 1,500 books before you die[3], you might naturally think it would require you to read for 4-6 hours a day (“especially at my reading speed,” some of you’d say). But the actual math puts your reading regimen—even for slow readers—at just 30 minutes every day. The same is true for virtually every other major endeavor. A little bit of effort every day, on a daily basis, can accomplish so much more than we realize.

Herculean feats don’t require Herculean efforts—they require consistency.

Why trying to start new habits often fails

I used to think about habits backwards.

When we want to change our lives, it’s usually because we’re looking for a particularly outcome. We want to be slimmer[4]. We want to be stronger. We want to have learned how to write code. We want to start a YouTube channel.[5]

With their desired outcome in mind, people set a deadline for completion because we’re told that goals need a deadline (“lose weight by X day, read X books by end-of-year”), and then they reverse-engineer a daily habit based on that goal. But that doesn’t take into account your actual life, which is the most important consideration! How do you want to live? Do you actually enjoy eating keto, or do you long to eat some bread or pasta? Do you actually enjoy running two miles every day, or are you dreading it every time? Do you actually have the time to write 2,000 words a day, or is that just the pace you think you should have?

The problem is that by creating a habit that doesn’t take into account how you actually want to live, you’re creating a habit that will be virtually impossible to stick with. People naturally seek leisurely lives; we don’t do things we don’t like unless we’re compelled to. If you look around at your long-term constructive habits, you’ll likely find a bunch of behaviors you stuck with because you just liked doing them. People who are casually athletic aren’t usually fitness-obsessed; they’re usually people who've found a sport they love. People who read a book every week are usually people who just love reading more than they like TV or movies.

Habit-formation requires patience because it forces you to stop thinking about an end outcome and start thinking about how you’d like to live on a daily basis for the rest of your life. It also require trusting that your efforts, however small they might seem on a daily basis, will get you to where you need to go.

But I’d argue that it requires something even more important: it requires joy.

Joy is key to habit-formation

In How to Take Smart Notes, the author talks about how the key to long-term success is a “virtuous cycle” of positive experiences:

  1. Doing the work (whatever it is) produces a positive experience
  2. The positive experience motivates me to do it again
  3. This makes me better at whatever it is
  4. This allows me to enjoy it further
  5. The work produces further positive experiences

Do you see what’s missing here? Zero mention of baseline competency, zero mention of performance standards, zero mention of productivity or output. The key to long-term success in any endeavor is in the first step: Doing the work produces a positive experience. It’s that simple. The work itself has to be the source of joy; you can’t motivate yourself with external rewards. How many of us make little bargains like “I won’t eat cake unless I do what I’m supposed to do”? What happens eventually? Eventually, we just eat the cake—if we don’t want to do something, we simply won’t.

But if I can teach myself to enjoy the activity itself? Unstoppable.

Change comes from rhythm, not effort

Professional trainers like Michelle Segar are realizing that the key to long-term success is enjoyment. Rather than putting her clients on a normal workout regimen, she encourages them to figure out what they enjoy doing: soccer, rowing, hiking, etc. Once they find it, she builds a routine around that. And what she finds is that when her clients start enjoying movement, they start lookin for other kinds of sports they can enjoy. It creates the virtuous cycle: they enjoy exercise, so they keep doing sports, which makes them more confident athletes, which encourages them to find other sports to enjoy.

Incidentally, this is what happened to me in high school. I spent years treating exercise as a punishment I needed to endure...until I joined a rugby team at 16. All of a sudden, everything I knew about myself changed. I didn’t hate running; as it turns out, I loved running (as long as it was after the ball or with the ball in my hands). Within months, I became the fittest I’d ever been, and I wasn’t even trying. I was just moving my body for fun.[6]

As you can imagine, it applies to writing too.

In 2019, I started making detailed and copious notes about things I read. Books, articles, and essays on history, on economy, on writing. I wasn’t doing them for any particular outcome; I just wanted to better digest what I was reading. I also wasn’t spending hours a day doing it. On a typical day, I’d write a couple notes, each one about half the size of a blog. Blurbs, really—they’d take me around 20 minutes. Then I’d make notes connecting those other notes, developing ideas, building on my initial thoughts. On some days I’d write way more, but as a rule, I try to make at least one note per day.

The other day, I looked up how much I’d written in little notes since 2019. The total?

Nearly 250,000 words in notes, summaries, and thoughts.

That’s two hefty-sized novels. And most of those notes are in semi-publishable form, with full sentences and fleshed-out thoughts.
Without even thinking about it, I’d written nearly a quarter million words because I had built a habit. No goals, no deadlines. Just the rhythm of my life.

Whatever you’re looking to accomplish, you’re absolutely capable of it. I have no doubt of that. But very few of us are capable of accomplishing any long-term endeavor through sheer will. We need habits to carry us through the days where our motivation is low, where we’re exhausted or frustrated or distracted.

We ought to remember that our “habits” are just another word for what our lives are made of. And we won’t accomplish anything meaningful by turning our lives into a voluntary grind on a daily basis. The key to forming long-term habits is joy.

So play a little. Learn to love the process. Figure out the ways to turn your ambitions into sources of renewal, not exertion. Stop holding yourself to a production schedule no one else cares about.

Enjoy yourself.

  1. We’re not going to get into why it’s fucked up that I wanted to “lose weight” before I’d even hit puberty, but it’s fucked up. ↩︎

  2. If you have ADHD or some kind of stimulation disorder, you’re likely already exhausted by the time you wake up. As someone with ADHD, thinking about habits has been necessary for helping me function ‘normally,’ much less at the level I want to live at. ↩︎

  3. Let’s assume you have 40 years left to live. ↩︎

  4. In reality, a lot of people want to be slimmer, not for any health-related reason, but because they think being thin will fix their insecurity. The existence of body dysmorphia should cure us of this misconception, but alas. What we actually want is to fully accept ourselves, regardless of shape. ↩︎

  5. For me, I want a gorilla bod: I want big, broad shoulders, a strong chest, but to also have agility and speed. I want to be functionally fit. I also want to write novels, finish a short story collection, read 50 books next year, and so on. ↩︎

  6. It’s worth noting that the only times in my life that I really changed my physique were the times I wasn’t really trying. Every diet or fitness routine failed; it was only playing for fun that changed how strong, fast, and lean I was. ↩︎

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