Building Habits: Your Worst Enemies can be Your Best Friends

Published September 26, 2009 in Psychology and Mind Hacks - 4 Comments

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Building productive habits is key to any kind of personal development, no doubt about that. Unfortunately, building new habits also tends to be very, very difficult. In this post, I will introduce two key factors that make habit-building so difficult. These factors are habituation and homeostasis, and while they can be your worst enemies, when you are trying to improve yourself, they can also be your best friends.

Habituation and Homeostasis

Habituation is a very simple and very familiar concept, which we usually refer to as “getting used to stuff”. We all do many things habitually, every day, without ever thinking about them. The problem is that if you try to do something new (e.g. exercising regularly), this is not yet a habit for you and it probably interferes with an existing habit (e.g. slouching around). Habits, especially ones that have been with you for years or even decades, are hard to budge. As you can almost certainly attest to from first-hand experience, your habits usually have more pull than your willpower.

Homeostasis is a  less widely known concept. The term is most often encountered in the context of Biology, where it describes the regulatory functions in organisms. For example, sweating on a hot, sunny day is a homeostatic effect. By producing sweat that evaporates on your skin, your body is making sure that it’s internal temperature remains unchanged. Such regulatory systems govern practically every aspect of living organisms and it’s easy to see why they are crucial to survival. Interestingly, the human psyche, groups of people and even entire societies are also governed by homeostasis. Much like gravity is a force that is constantly pulling objects towards each other, homeostasis can be described as a force that is constantly pulling things back to the way they have always been. So, concerning your body-temperature, homeostasis is constantly pulling it towards about 37° C and concerning your psyche, homeostasis is, for example, always pulling you towards your usual emotional state. This was shown in a striking and by now well known study conducted by Brickman et al., which compared the happiness-levels of Lottery-winners to those of people who had fallen victim to serious injuries. As it turns out, just a few months after a very fortunate or very tragic event, you’ll be just as happy or unhappy as you were before the incident.

Why does this happen? Biologically as well as psychologically and socially, staying the same as you were before can be linked to survival. Obviously, in terms of survival, the worst possible occurrence is death. Whatever you have been doing so far has not killed you. Change means risk, in this case the risk of any new behaviour leading to your untimely demise. Even if your current situation is unpleasant and sub-optimal, it’s still better than being dead (from a survival standpoint), so let’s keep it like it is. An example of this I’ve seen cited in many self-help books is that people tend to always stay at the same level of wealth. Let’s say that so far, you’ve always had just barely enough money to make it to the end of the month. Now, imagine you got a promotion and a nice pay-raise. Chances are, you’ll manage to increase your living costs in such a way that once again, you’ll just barely make it to the end of each month, financially. You won’t do this on purpose, but subconsciously, homeostasis will drive you back into the financial situation you were always used to. I have not seen any scientific studies covering this example, but I can clearly see that it’s true for myself and my friends.

So, to summarize, you have your current habits making it difficult start a new habit and once you do start that new habit, you have homeostasis trying to revert everything to the way it was before. By now, you may well be asking: Where’s the encouraging bit in this article?

The Encouraging Bit

The good news is that habituation and homeostasis work both ways. Or, more accurately, habituation and homeostasis are completely neutral (even though it may seem that they are working against you). The fact is that despite it being difficult, people do change. If you acquire a new habit and stick with it for long enough, it will suddenly be more difficult not to do it than to do it. You may now be in a situation where you find it extremely difficult not to have a coke and a hamburger too many, but, given enough time, you could find yourself in a place where you find very difficult not to get up at 5:30 in the morning and go for a brisk run. Just as you now might be compelled to watch TV every time you come home from work (modern version: StumbleUpon through the interwebs), you could be compelled to reach for those weights and do another set of exercises. You get the idea.

Now, I know what the complaint here is going to be: Lifting weights and going for runs is hard – there’s actual effort involved. Watching TV, surfing the net and eating junk-food, on the other hand, is easy and effortless. This is partially true, of course. It may well be that a habit of regular exercise takes more time to form than a habit of eating junk food and being lazy. That doesn’t mean that it’s impossible to form solid, good habits, though. I can name two very concrete examples from my own experience:

  1. Diet:
    As a kid, I used to love junk-food, especially sweets. By now, I have become habituated enough to a healthy diet, that I actually dislike overly sweet and salty foods. I can’t drink any of these dyed sugar-waters (aka soft-drinks) and I’d sooner starve than eat a hamburger from a fast-food joint. Even though sweets are the more rewarding foods to eat in the short-term (saturating taste-buds and sugar-rush), I could still form a habit towards healthy foods.
  2. Exercise:
    Even though the type of weight-lifting exercises I do are basically self-torture, I am so used to working out by now that I feel kind of weird on my resting days. Interestingly, I had only taken up weight-lifting as a workout routine again about five months ago. So this habit didn’t even take very long to build.

This, no doubt, applies to any other kind of habit as well. You can learn to appreciate the morning run more than the warm bed-sheets, you can find it easier to keep everything in your office tidy than to leave things scattered around and you can feel more like doing your evening meditation than watching a Desperate Housewives re-run.

Okay, so where’s the ‘how-to’ bit?

The How-To Bit

Once again, I will not offer a list-based do-it-yourself solution (even though that would be good for traffic). What you can get from all this is, primarily, a particular mindset, a way to frame your habit-building. The resistance that you are feeling, when you are trying to build a new habit is not a sign of weakness and neither does it indicate that you are about to fail. It is completely natural and only indicates that you are actually progressing towards change (no progression towards change = no homeostatic pull). Keep in mind that while homeostasis is pulling you back into your old behaviours, so are you pulling the reference-point for homeostasis towards you, towards your new behaviour. Every time you repeat the new behaviour, you are physically and psychologically experiencing a tiny bit of habituation. Keep it up, and soon enough the forces that are now pulling you back will be there to reinforce your new, positive habit. Soon enough, you will have changed for good.

In other words: Expect the slump, recognize it as the sign of progress that it is and fight through it. Once you’re past the worst of it, the winds will turn for you and you can look forward to smoother sailing. Until you go after the next new habit, at least.

  • Hi Shane.

    A well written article. I was especially interested in the section on homeostasis with relation to financial habits and situation. I am in the middle of writing my second piece for my “How to be Rich Series” and it focuses on exactly that. the three financial equations and financial habits.

    Great article, keep up the good work.

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  • Hey there! Very nicely written article. I’m sure a lot of people can relate with your “Diet/Exercise” example. Most of our emotions are controlled by our minds, so as long as we can remain focused and in control of ourselves, I think we’ll be okay 😉 Great post here!

    • Thanks for commenting! Yeah, the good old battle between mind and emotions… Sometimes you just need to grit your teeth to get through some emotional turmoil.