Building Sustainable Habits: Why We Make Excuses and Resist Habit Change

Understanding and removing inner resistance to habit change.

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Sunday, May 18, 2014

Why do we have so many goals in our lives that we never do? Why do people know that exercise is good for them, and will make them healthier, but never do it? Answering this question is core to figuring out how to change people’s behaviors and help people execute on the goals and habits they’ve been trying to build.

The answer lies in the idea that we know that it’s good for us, but the instinctive and impulsive part of our mind doesn’t want to carry out the habit because it doesn’t know that it’s good for us. Why is that? And how do we change this and build sustainable habits using as little willpower as possible?

Interactive: Think of a habit or goal you’ve been trying to build, but haven’t gotten around to doing. For many people, the top one is exercising and losing weight; for others, it’s writing more, or reading more, or focusing on work. I’ll be using an example throughout the article, and for me, my main habit that I’m trying to cultivate is exercise. As you read this article, see if you can apply the concepts herein to that habit that you’re working on.

We know that it’s good for us

We consciously know that our habit that we want to build is good for us and that it will improve our life. We know that exercising every day will allow us to be healthier, feel better, and improve both how long we live and the quality of our life. Those sound like amazing advantages—who wouldn’t like to work towards that? Or, if you’re trying to build a writing habit, you know that writing will allow you to express yourself better, be better and communication and persuasion, and it pays dividends for many areas of your life.

So if we know that it’s good for us, why don’t we do it? The fact that logical reasoning alone can’t change our behavior in many cases suggests that there’s something other than logical reasoning that controls our behavior and what we decide to do and pursue. When we want to start every morning with a workout routine, or write for fifteen minutes a day, what’s stopping us?

Figuring out the reason why we know we should be doing a habit (like exercising or reading or focusing at work) but don’t do it is critical to figuring out what’s holding us back, and how to break through that glass ceiling that prevents us from building habits.

We know that it’s good for us, but we don’t do it

Your conscious side has reasoned out the benefits, and knows, rationally, that exercising is a good idea and will greatly improve your quality of life, or that writing will pay dividends over the entire period of your life by helping you communicate better. But there’s another side that sometimes differs in opinion with the conscious side, and it’s the side that resists change and pushes back on us when we want to build new habits: the instinctive side.

When I get up and contemplate doing a morning run or hitting the gym for an hour to do a workout, the resistance from my instinctive side kicks in. My conscious side knows that it’s a good idea to go for a run or go to the gym and get it done, for all the reasons I already know: better health, feel great during the day, higher mental performance, etc. But my instinctive side says that it’ll be difficult and painful, and I just don’t feel like doing it… it’s just so much work, and I’d rather just go and get my day started.

My conscious side might agree that exercising is a good idea, but my instinctive side resists.

Knowing is conscious, doing is mostly instinctive

There are two different systems that we use to think, according to the dual process theory popularized by Daniel Kahneman. System 1 is the fast, instinctive, and automatic method of thinking, and some functions include fast reactions, skills, and other instinctive actions. System 2 is the slow, calculated, logic-based method of thinking, which relies heavily on rationality. It turns out that System 1 is the one that decides most of our actions, though System 2 is consulted from time to time for when a decision requires more thought and deliberation.1

Our conscious side is the one that knows what the right thing to do is. Using rational explanations and reasoning, we know that exercise is better for us. But our instinctive side is the one that is deciding a lot of the doing. And we’re naturally opposed to pain and difficulty, so the instinctive side is naturally against doing new things and implementing new habits. The way that we’re able to persuade ourselves to go and do new things is by allowing our conscious side to win over the instinctive side when we’re at the point of decision.

When we think about whether we want to carry out a new habit, the thing in our minds that is making excuses to avoid carrying it out and saying “I don’t feel like doing it today” is the instinctive side creating resistance. We are instinctively and impulsively opposed to carrying out the habit.

Sit back and think for a minute

This might help you go from reading the idea that I’m writing about, to feeling what I mean. I think it’ll lead to a better understanding of this article, and going beyond “just reading” to having a real connection and spark in your mind where you’ll really get it, which I think will be beneficial.

Sit back and think about the habit you’ve been trying to do, and think about the conscious side. Logically, why is it good to do that habit? What are the benefits? Why do we want to pursue it—for health, or better work, or for learning?

It’s strange that despite those benefits, we still don’t do it.

Then, think about the instinctive side, and be honest with yourself. What were the excuses you gave last time you considered doing that habit and didn’t?

What if I told you to do that habit right now? Pause on reading this article, and exercise, right now. Or meditate, or write, or pursue your dream project, right now. What’s going through your mind? Do you notice your conscious side knowing you should be doing that thing, and the instinctive side resisting against it, and the excuses it’s giving? 0

That’s the conscious side and instinctive side at odds, and that’s why we feel resistance when we try to build new habits.

And in my experience, most of the time, the instinctive side wins.

Conscious vs. instinctive value systems

Let’s step back and take a closer look at the two sides.

My theory is that our conscious and instinctive sides differ in what they want because they have different value systems. They value habits and behaviors in different ways.

I believe that the conscious side assigns value using logical reasoning and rational explanations. From what we know about health, exercising is the most important thing that we can do to keep in good health, physically and mentally. We’ve read the articles, we’ve had the conversations with friends, and we’ve seen the scientific evidence. It makes sense to us, consciously, that exercising is crucial for our well-being and for living well.

The instinctive side assigns value using past experience and past evidence. It distills past experience and builds evidence to value a certain behavior. In contrast to the conscious side’s logic-based approach, if our past experience of exercise has shown that it’s difficult and painful and stressful, then we’re going to avoid doing it. We expect it to continue being difficult and painful and stressful, so we are instinctively against doing it since that’s what we expect.

Conscious values are made up of logical evidence, whereas instinctive values are made up of experiential evidence.2

For some behaviors, the conscious and instinctive values match. This is the case for those core day-to-day things that we do, like brushing your teeth. In these cases where it matches, such as brushing your teeth, the conscious side, through reason, knows that it’s beneficial for good health, looking good, and social acceptance, and the instinctive side, through past evidence and experience, agrees that this is true and that it’s worth doing. The values match.

However, in the cases that it doesn’t match, where our conscious values are at odds with our instinctive values, it results in resistance where the instinctive side doesn’t want to go through with the habit. In some cases, like with exercise, the instinctive side is partially right. Exercise is painful and difficult and stressful. But what the instinctive side doesn’t understand is that it’s for the better. The instinctive side isn’t good at calculating long-term benefit3, whereas our conscious side knows that it does have an immense long-term benefit. What we need to do is to impose our conscious values on our instinctive side, to try to override what our instinctive side wants to do, and try to convince our instinctive side using logical reasoning and awareness of long-term benefit from the conscious side.

Imposing our conscious values on our instinctive side

At the point of decision, we have two choices. We can decide to put on workout shorts and hit the gym, or otherwise carry out the habit that we consciously want to do. Or we can make excuses, say “I don’t feel like it” and procrastinate it to the eternal tomorrow. Resistance is created between the two sides. The way that we decide to go forward with the habit is by imposing our conscious values on our instinctive side. The way that we decide to skip the habit and say “I’ll do it tomorrow” is by succumbing to our instinctive side and its excuses, and letting it win.

There’s a gap that exists between our conscious value and instinctive value of that habit. It’s what I call a decision gap, and it defines whether or not the conscious and instinctive side are in accord with its decision to do something. The gap is bigger if the habit is more difficult or unattractive, such as exercising, because the more difficult the habit, the more the instinctive side doesn’t want to do it, creating a bigger gap.

We cross that gap and execute on the habit by imposing our conscious values on our instinctive side.

My theory on the way that we do this is through willpower. Willpower is what allows us to put in the work to do an action, even though we don’t feel like doing it. We use willpower to force ourselves to ignore what we feel like doing, and instead we do what we should be doing. We use willpower to get ourselves to the gym when we don’t feel like it, and when we do that, we override our instinctive values and what it wants to do, with our conscious values and what we should be doing, and bridge the gap between them, resulting in doing the right action.

If the habit is more difficult, the gap is bigger, and more willpower is needed. A small gap would be doing 3 pushups; a large one would be doing 100 in a minute. You’d need a lot more willpower to be able to convince yourself to try to do 100 pushups in a minute than you’d need to do 3.

So now, we’ve talked about the two different ways of thinking that sometimes create resistance with new habits, why they create resistance, and conceptually, how we overcome that. Time to put it together. How do we start building sustainable habits?

Building sustainable habits

We know that the difference between how much we consciously value and instinctively value a habit creates a gap. We bridge that gap using willpower, which is imposing our conscious values on our instinctive values for that habit. And instinctive values are derived from experience and evidence.

My theory on developing sustainable habits is based on two ideas:

  1. The main thing that will allow us to make a habit automatic is by having our instinctive values and conscious values be in accord, and both want to carry out an action. So, we should work towards matching our instinctive values with our conscious values. We do so by giving our instinctive side evidence to match and agree with the conscious values.

    We can’t rely on willpower forever, so it’s best if we try to close that gap, which requires willpower to bridge. This is the point where a habit becomes habitual, since you find value in it, and carry it out without resistance.

  2. In order to work towards building evidence for the instinctive side, we carry out the habit, which results in developing evidence for the habit, but aim to use as little willpower as possible to do so. If possible, we have to stop relying on willpower and assume that we have close to zero willpower. If we design it so that it takes very little willpower to carry out an action, extra willpower is a bonus.4

The idea is to eventually match our instinctive values with our conscious values, so that they can be in accord and make the habit automatic. The way that we do that is to build up evidence for our instinctive side, while using as little willpower as possible to build up that evidence.

Applying this model to an exercise habit

This is how I’d do it, in the context of exercising:

Setting the goal. I’d like to exercise every morning. I’ll narrow the scope of the exercise to focus on pushups; to put a quantitative metric on it, I’ll say that I want to do 100 pushups a day; and anchor it to my living routine, I’ll say that I want to get in the habit of doing 100 pushups every morning.

Right now, going from zero to 100 pushups is very, very difficult, and I’m bound to have a lot of resistance to doing 100 pushups, especially right after waking up and needing coffee. The gap there is huge, and it would take a lot of willpower, every morning, to try to achieve that goal. So instead, I’ll apply what we know about willpower and how it takes a lot more to bridge a large gap, and reduce the gap.

Starting out. The way to use as little willpower as possible is to start out really, really small. I’ll start out with 3 pushups. The gap of required willpower to do just 3 pushups is considerably smaller. My conscious side thinks it’s a good idea to get some exercise, and my instinctive side, while it would still prefer to not do pushups, has far less resistance to just doing three pushups because of the ease of doing so. It only requires a bit of willpower to get myself to drop down and do just those three pushups.

After doing those three pushups, I add a little bit of evidence to my instinctive side. “That wasn’t so bad. I could do that. And I feel good about accomplishing the habit, even though it was small.” And the fact that I did carry out the habit creates momentum for the next time I consider doing the habit, and I’ll be more inclined to do that habit in the future since there’s evidence that I’ve done it in the past.5

Tomorrow, I might continue doing three pushups. I’m continuing to build evidence on the instinctive side, and it becomes easier and easier to do, and requires less and less willpower. I’m also continuing to make doing the pushups themselves habitual, and get in the habit of doing pushups at all, which is an essential foundation to scale up from.

Scaling up. Once I’ve made that habit stick and the instinctive side has that evidence, I’m set to scale the intensity up a bit. I’ll scale up to five pushups, continuing to focus on using as little willpower as possible. Now that my instinctive side has more evidence, I can convince myself using little willpower to do two pushups. Then I’ll continue building evidence until I’m comfortable with two pushups and that it becomes easy to do, and then I can scale up again when two becomes easy. As I build more evidence up, I can do 5, then 8, then 12, then 16, then 20, then 30, then 50.

The important part to scaling up is to be mindful of how much willpower I am using, and use that as feedback on how much I should scale up and when. I need to make sure that I’m not overstepping my bounds, and that I’m building the habit with a good success rate that’s not too low and not too high. If I’m not succeeding enough, then it means that the gap is too large and I need to use more willpower than necessary, and I need to scale back. If I’m succeeding all the time, that means that I’m not scaling up fast enough. Being at a biased balance6 of a point where it’s only a bit of a stretch is the optimal position, in my opinion, since you’re making progress on the stretch part while keeping yourself emotionally grounded by having some success.

Contrast this with the usual method of doing this, which is to set an arbitrary habit and try to will ourselves to do it, like setting up a habit of 50 pushups a day. That’s not sustainable, since we have to will ourselves into doing 50 pushups a day, and I believe the success rate, both short-term and especially long-term, is low, because we’re relying on having a lot of willpower every day, which is not always the case. As we try to do this habit, we might succeed for the first few days or the first week on willpower and being inspired, but the gap is still large, and it still requires a lot of willpower to execute at the end. After the first week, we’re bound to drop it one day when we don’t have time, or just don’t feel like doing it (i.e. not having the willpower to do it). Now we’re at risk of dropping the habit altogether since we’ve missed a day, and the willpower gap is still large, and we might miss another, and end up thinking a few weeks later, “whatever happened to that habit?” This is the stumbling around that many people do with new habits that they do, and seems to be a textbook model of failure for new year’s resolutions.

In this method, at each stage, I’m making sure I’m using as little willpower as possible to reach success for that particular level. And at each stage, I’m simultaneously building up evidence for those levels on the instinctive side. Hopefully, the instinctive side is seeing benefits, continuing to build up evidence, and at some point, I might notice real benefits. Maybe I feel better during the day, or maybe I feel like I’m performing better mentally, or, if I’m doing more intense exercise, maybe the pounds on the scale are decreasing instead of going the other way. These act as additional pieces of evidence that really make a big difference on us, to keep going and continue doing this habit.

This is more sustainable. We are building up real value on our instinctive side instead of always trying to use willpower to convince our instinctive side to do the habit and adopt the conscious viewpoint. We can start small, scale up, and constantly be at the point where it’s enough of a stretch for us to make progress, but not difficult enough that there’s a big gap and we have to constantly have to use a lot of willpower to carry out the habit. Over time, we build real evidence for the instinctive side to value the habit and eventually do it automatically.

And eventually, and sustainably, I reach 100 pushups every morning. Not by willing myself to do it for weeks—no, I would have quit way before reaching 100 pushups. Instead, it’s by building up real evidence for doing 3, 5, 8, 12 pushups, and scaling up.7 And one December 3rd, in Sarajevo, Bosnia, I reached 100 myself.

Sustainable habit development, summarized

  1. Define the habit or goal. Focus (pushups, not just exercise), and be specific (100 pushups, every morning). Keep in mind that the idea is to build instinctive evidence so that it matches your conscious desire to develop the habit, which leads to the point where the habit is truly habitual, and is done automatically.
  2. Start incredibly small, at the point where you’ll feel almost no resistance to doing it. In my example, this was starting out with just 3 pushups to get yourself into the habit of doing something. This will allow you to sustainably execute the habit, to build instinctive evidence.
  3. Keep doing the habit, while keeping in mind how much willpower that you require to carry out the habit. While you do the habit, the instinctive side is developing evidence for you to continue doing that habit.
  4. Scale up when you’re comfortable with the current level. Aim towards doing what you can do and then some (a ‘stretch’ goal). Scale down when it feels too difficult, but make sure it’s still at a stretch level.

The real end game

When we try to develop habits, we’re trying to get to the point where we’re doing something habitually—when we’re doing it automatically. The critical point where a habit truly becomes habitual is when your conscious and instinctive values are in line with each other. That’s when you feel like you rationally know that it’s a good thing to do, and the instinctive side agrees. That’s when you feel weird when you don’t do it. Like the compulsion you have to brush your teeth, because it would be weird not to. And the compulsion that people who are used to exercising every day to do their workout or their run or whatnot. Those people feel weird when they don’t do it. They’re happy to do the habit and they want to—and it doesn’t take much work or self-convincing to do so. It’s automatic.

This means that after you get through the difficult stage of habit formation, you get to the point where you’re automatically doing the habit and it’s paying dividends in your life. You get to the point where exercise feels natural, writing is enjoyable, or eating well is something you do normally—just like how brushing your teeth is just natural and habitual—and it continues to improve your life, automatically, from then on. Amazing how that works, and it really inspires me to get the right habits in place so that they can improve my life.

So let’s get to it. Engineer your habit building to work towards developing a sustainable habit. Keep in mind that the resistance you feel is the instinctive side lacking evidence. Build that evidence, and use the easiest pathway to do so: by using as little willpower as possible. Scale up and adjust. See the results, and feel good about them. The initial investment is immense, but the long-term benefit of building a sustainable habit is creating a habit that will improve the quality of your life, automatically, for the rest of your life.

My primary work at the moment is research on habit formation and how we can use technology to assist in it. This is part of my theory of habit formation, which is constantly changing, and I present this as a possible explanation about the role of the two minds in habit formation and the source of resistance.

I’d love to hear your thoughts, and I’d also love to chat if you’re in the space. Drop me a line at mark@markbao.com.

0 — “In summary, most of what you (your System 2) think and do originates in your System 1, but System 2 takes over when things get difficult, and it normally has the last word.” I agree that System 2 does deliver input when things get difficult, but I feel that whether it can override System 1 depends on whether System 1 can answer the question in the first place. It can offer input and be the final say in situations of complex thinking, like difficult math problems, since System 1 doesn’t have a way to figure out the problem and doesn’t have a say in the issue. But when System 1 and System 2 both believe something, I don’t think System 1 defers to System 2. In that case, System 2 overriding System 1 is not so easy (and requires willpower). Kahneman seems to touch on this later: “One of the tasks of System 2 is to overcome the impulses of System 1. In other words, System 2 is in charge of self-control.”

Kahneman, D. (2011). Two Systems – Plot Synopsis. (24-26) In Thinking, Fast and Slow. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux.

1 — Sometimes, I think the excuses we’re giving ourselves are post-rationalizations, where we decide instinctively that we don’t want to do something, then we try to rationalize that by saying we have too much work or we don’t “feel like it” that day. It seems that rationalization is not leading to a decision, but the decision leads to rationalization to try to convince ourselves retroactively on why that decision is right.

2 — One interesting way to look at conscious values and instinctive values is to look at what they’re made up of. Assuming that conscious values are made up of logical evidence, and instinctive values are made up of experiential evidence, the ‘units’ of evidence differ. I think logical evidence is made up of bits of information gained externally, and bits of reasoning which is done through thought internally using external information, which all combine somehow to result in some degree of value. (External information: “Exercise is good for losing weight”; internal information: “I’m overweight, so I need to lose weight, by using exercise.”)

On the other hand, I believe that experiential evidence is made up of singular events and our rationalizations about those events (that was awesome, that was stressful, that was disappointing, etc.) and those similarly combine to result in a degree of value. (Exercise event: “Worked out for half an hour yesterday.” Resulting rationalization/feelings: “It was painful.”)

It’s interesting to think about the ‘bits’ that go into creating a singular metric of how we value something. Is there a linear scale for value, or is it more complicated than that? Now we’re treading the line between psychology and philosophy.

3 — Kahneman presents the idea of WYSIATI (What You See Is All There Is), which essentially says that the instinctive side uses limited evidence to jump to conclusions, making it difficult for that side to make long-term decisions. I believe that it still tries to make long-term decisions when emotionally charged.

Kahneman, D. (2011). Two Systems – What You See Is All There Is (WYSIATI). (85) In Thinking, Fast and Slow. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux.

4 — At some point, I’d like to research if matching willpower works even better, meaning matching the amount of willpower that someone actually has (or that we predict that they have). I wonder if that allows someone to perform better since it matches their current inherent motivation to do something. People who are more disciplined (see next note) might be able to apply more willpower to a goal, and might be frustrated with the slow movement of a regular path that assumes less willpower.

5 — I came up with a preliminary idea of ‘momentum’, which seems to be an interesting way to look at if our minds tend to believe that simply doing something in the past is enough evidence for doing it in the future, and other evidence like your current performance with that habit (such as weight already lost or other dividends already paid) are just bonuses. A habit becoming easier and easier and requiring less willpower to carry out might be partly the result of it being done in the past and you having the momentum to keep carrying out that habit.

After some thinking, I’m inclined to believe that momentum is simply a subset of instinctual evidence (experiential evidence) that contributes to the whole of instinctual value, not something that acts on its own in the decision-making process.

6Biased balance is a concept that I’ve been thinking a lot about lately. The idea is that there are rarely instances where we should be on either extreme of something. Working all the time and having zero time to relax is a recipe for burnout and disaster. Believing something 100% and not being flexible to seeing the other sides of it is a recipe for ignorance. So we should be in balance: enough work, enough play. Enough belief, but also being flexible to seeing other viewpoints. Being in balance means that we can find the best parts of both extremes and apply them.

But in many cases, we should be biased in that balance, to make progress on one side or the other. For me, it’s making sure that I’m working and relaxing, but I’m having the biased balance of focusing on working. It’s also making sure that I’m getting out of my comfort zone and experiencing new things, and also having time to be comfortable and enjoying that, but leaning on the side of getting out of my comfort zone more often than not. A balance allows us to be sustainable in what we do, and avoid burnout; a biased balance allows us to use balance as a good foundation, while making progress towards one side or the other.

7 — Interestingly, we might see the ability to apply willpower and ‘will’ ourselves to do something as equivalent to discipline. The more discipline you have, the more able you are to use willpower to make yourself do something, and the bigger of a gap you can potentially attack. (In that, while normal people might scale up from 2 to 4 pushups successfully, highly-disciplined people might be able to scale up from 2 to 8 since they have a higher tolerance for using willpower, and can deal with larger gaps successfully.)

By Mark Bao

I write about behavioral science, personal growth, strategy, and the true nature of things under the surface.

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