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

Understanding and removing inner resistance to habit change.

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?

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I didn’t know Aaron Swartz personally. We never spoke, not in person nor by email.

Yet, his suicide today has left a big hole in the world for me.

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‘Always choose to be happy’ is toxic advice

It prevents you from changing yourself

I hear about the idea of ‘choosing to be happy’ frequently. When we talk about improving our lives during our short existence, it’s oft-repeated advice.

Here’s the idea: when you’re not happy, or when you’re not satisfied, or even when you’re depressed, you can make the decision to be happy instead. You have the choice to be happy or sad – and, given the fact that you only have limited time on Earth, which one do you want to pick? Happy, of course.

So, ‘always choose to be happy.’

I find this approach to be extremely ineffective. Although it’s nice to acknowledge that you always have the choice to be happy or not when dealing with a situation, I think that there is less value in simply ‘choosing to be happy’ and more value in choosing to be unhappy and doing something about it.

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Repositioning your perspective to achieve goals

Cognitive constructs to maintain goals

Sebastian Marshall wrote a great article about a way to prevent yourself from “giving in” when you’re working towards a goal. Often times, I say “screw it, I finished such-and-such medium-sized project, let’s dig into some steak/these brownies/some dessert… I haven’t in a long time.” Not only is it dangerous, but you eventually lower the criteria for “event for celebration”, and it’s so easy to give in.

One way to suppress this urge to give in, says Sebastian, is thinking the following: “Self destruction is generally counterproductive.” It’s smart. The idea is that, all things considered, giving in is almost always net negative. So why do it?

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