This could be one of the most important episodes you’ve ever listened to.
I’m guessing you’ve probably spent a significant amount of time trying to “get rid of bad habits” and “create new healthy habits” over the years?
Then keep reading…
Whenever the word “habits” is mentioned, people tend to think about repeating something until they start doing it automatically.
For example, “I’m going to start running every day. After a while, running daily will be a habit.”
Researchers have even “confirmed” that this is how it works, they just struggle to agree on how long it takes (I say “confirmed” in jest).
Some researchers say 21 days while others say 66. And there are many different answers in between and outside of those figures.
I call bullshit on all of this.
All of it.
If you look at the “habits” most people engage in, they engage in those habits for one simple reason…
That’s it. Life is an ongoing cost-benefit analysis.
Choose any habitual behavior you engage in and look at it more closely.
You’re either doing that behavior to gain something or to avoid losing something. At the end of the day, you engage in that behavior because the perceived payoff outweighs the perceived costs.
Habit building isn’t a game of repetition, it’s a game of perspective.
Perspective is based on a combination of things: life experience, psychological narratives and engrained beliefs, value perception, etc.
Your perspective is what creates your priorities.
Your priorities drive your behavior.
So what is a habit then?
A habit is a behavior that gets repeated because the conclusion of the cost-benefit analysis you’re running on it hasn’t changed.
Trying to create a habit through forced repetition is like trying to make someone like you by writing them a love note every day.
If their perspective on you is that you’re annoying, the notes will only make you seem more annoying. They’ll never work.
If their perspective on you is neutral, the notes are kinda weird.
The only way the notes will work is if you’re already viewed favorably by them.
It’s all perspective.
The only thing you can really do to quit “bad” habits or install new habits is to change your perspective.
Mostly, it’s about changing the outcome of the cost-benefit analysis by changing your perspective on the benefits versus the costs.
“But Kevin, if what you’re saying is true, bad habits wouldn’t exist because people would see that the cost is too high!”
You might think that’s the case if you take the term “bad habit” at face value.
But what is a “bad habit?”
First, calling a habit “bad” is subjective and relative.
Many people call fingernail biting a “bad habit.” But many people who bite their fingernails don’t agree with that assessment. They see no problem with it, thus they have no intention to stop this “bad habit.”
Sure, there are certain habits that a vast majority of people all agree have destructive consequences.
Just because a behavior has destructive consequences doesn’t mean that specific behavior doesn’t have a payoff that outweighs those consequences.
Look at drug addicts or alcoholics. They engage in destructive behavior habitually (aka “bad habits“).
But if you really understand the position they’re in, you understand that addicts are often so internally disorganized that they see the cost of quitting the addiction as being far greater than the perceived benefit of being clean.
Getting clean, after all, requires immense pain. And staying clean means living without your drug and your escape mechanism.
Staying an addict, even with the obvious destructive consequences, is perceived to be much easier.
Now you might say, “But that’s ridiculous. It’s obvious that being clean would be much better than being an addict!”
It’s obvious TO YOU, because you have a different perspective.
Value is subjective. Addiction is perceived to be more valuable [to addicts] than sobriety is.
Once again, it all boils down to a subjective cost-benefit analysis.
So how does this apply to my life and the establishment of “healthy habits?”
I’ll tell you point blank…
You will never make exercise a habit by exercising 21 days in a row. Or 44 days. Or 65 days. Or however long “research says” it takes to “build a habit.”
You will never make healthy eating a habit through sheer repetition.
You will never make 8 hours of sleep a habit by marking off a calendar every night until it’s engrained in your behavior patterns.
You will never [consistently] create healthy habits through extrinsic motivators like rewards, punishments, contests, challenges, willpower, discipline, etc.
If you want to create a healthy habit, you must:
- Understand the collection of benefits that a given behavior provides you.
- Understand the collection of costs (effort) required to engage in that behavior and the cost of that behavior in consequences.
- Conclude that the benefits outweigh the costs.
Keep in mind that all of these steps can be manipulated/altered/changed (and this is where you will create habit change)…
- You can gain awareness of benefits you previously didn’t know about.
- Your perceived value of the benefits can change.
- Your perception of the costs can change.
- Your perception of the consequences can change.
- Your circumstances can change altogether.
For example, one of the ways we successfully help thousands of men and women change their exercise habits every year is by directly manipulating their cost-benefit analysis of exercise.
Most people who fail to exercise consistently have a “means to an end” relationship with exercise. In other words, the only reason they exercise is to burn calories so they can lose fat. Or to look better. Etc.
There are multiple issues here:
- Not all the physical, mental, and emotional payoffs are understood or being acquired. The benefits that attract most of people’s attention are superficial.
- Engagement in exercise is perceived to be too costly (too much time, too much effort, too much pain) – this is often an engrained belief.
- The types of exercise activities that are commonly chosen contribute to the increase in perceived cost and reduction in perceived payoff.
- The superficial benefits are often too far away (in the future), effectively reducing their perceived value (this is referred to in behavioral economics as “hyperbolic discounting”).
- And more (I could go on and on and dive way deeper into this topic, but you’ve heard enough).
These things can be a lot easier to change than you think, which means…
Taking people who hate exercise and turning them into daily exercisers is not that difficult.
The same is true for quitting bad habits and installing other healthy habits, though the degree of difficulty varies.
But the process I’ve outlined here is definitely the key to habit city.
Installing these habits through the typical forced repetition/willpower/
That’s why none of our programs even make an attempt at that method.
This is yet another example of why I say that getting a body and life you love is only 20% mechanics and 80% heart, soul, and psychology.
Is it making sense to you?
Kevin Michael Geary
Kevin Geary is the founder of RebootedBody.com and a respected expert on cravings, eating psychology, and long-term habit change. He’s worked with thousands of men and women in over 35 countries around the world through his online academy and programs like Shut Down Your Sugar Cravings.