Do You Fall for Any of These 5 Common Mistakes about Habits?

Every Wednesday is List Day, or Tip Day, or Quiz Day.

Today: some common misconceptions about habits.

Just about all of us are interested in habits — whether because we want to change a habit of our own, or because we’d like to help someone else change a habit.

But to change habits, it’s important to understand how habits work. In my experience, people make certain mistakes about the nature of habits, and that makes it harder for them to tackle their habits.

Here are some of the most common misconceptions:

1. Repetition isn’t enough to build a habit. People assume that if they repeat a behavior consistently, it will become a habit. Maybe. But maybe not. I’ve heard from many people who trained for a marathon, with the thought that this would make them a regular exerciser, but then after the marathon, they never ran again. Or they do National Novel Writing Month, and think they’ve acquired the habit of daily writing, but stop when the month is over. In both these cases, the danger of the finish line explains why a habit wasn’t formed. Beware the finish line!

2. Consequences often don’t matter. People make the mistake of thinking that if consequences are dire enough, they’ll change a habit. Nope. Consequences, without the proper approach to changing a habit, often fail to move people to change. For instance, one-third to one-half of U.S. patients don’t take medicine prescribed for a chronic illness — for serious conditions such as diabetes, heart disease, even leprosy.

3. Some people do better giving up something altogether; others do better when they act with moderation. For most things (though not drinking or smoking), moderation is held up as an ideal, and I often hear people say, “Indulge with moderation, because if you’re too rigid with yourself, you won’t find it possible to keep your habit. Live a little, take a break, don’t be too hard on yourself.” This approach works well for Moderators. But I’m a hardcore Abstainer, and for me, abstaining altogether from something that’s a bad habit is easier. I know it sounds rigid and harsh, but for me it’s easier. As my sister the sage told me, when she gave up her beloved French fries forever, “I tell myself, ‘Now I’m free from French fries.'” A friend had to stop playing the word-game app Ruzzle entirely, because she couldn’t play just a little; another friend had to get rid of his TV. Moderation works for Moderators, abstaining works for Abstainers. Neither approach is right or wrong.

4. Habits can change overnight. People assume that habits can only be changed gradually, with repetition over time. That’s certainly one way habits change. But they can also change in a flash. The Strategy of the Lightning Bolt is a mysterious and elusive phenomenon, but it definitely happens; in fact, it’s much more common than I first believed. An idea or realization hits us like a lightning bolt, and we change our habits instantly. It’s frustrating, though, because while this strategy makes change easy, it’s something that happens to us — we can’t really invoke it. The effect can wear off, too, so if you experience a positive Lightning Bolt change, it’s important to recognize what’s happened, and take steps to keep that habit strong, so you don’t lose the benefit of its initial effortlessness.

5. The same strategies don’t work for everyone. The sad fact is, there’s no magical, one-size-fits-all approach that will work for everyone. When it comes to habits, people are very different. So it’s not really useful to copy what Einstein did, or what worked for your brother. We can get ideas from each other, and we definitely pass habits back and forth (that’s the Strategy of Other People), but we have to figure out what works for us. The Strategy of Accountability is crucial for an Obliger; it’s counter-productive for a Rebel, who makes more progress with the Strategy of Identity. A Lark does better scheduling an important habit for the morning, but that might not be true for an Owl. We won’t make ourselves more creative and productive by copying other people’s habits, even the habits of geniuses; we must know our own nature, and what habits serve us best.

Agree, disagree? What other mistakes have I overlooked? Habits! The most fascinating subject ever.

If you want to hear when my book about habits, Better Than Before, is available, sign up here.

  • Lisa Murphy

    #4 is so true — sometimes a flip just “switches.” For me, it was after reading “Why We Get Fat and What to Do About It” by Gary Taubes (thanks for the tip on that one). I immediately changed how I ate and the results were dramatic and remain so a full two years later. Looking forward to the new book!

    • ChrisD

      Me to for this book, the Diet Delusion (the UK title of the longer Taubes book), thanks to Gretchen recommending it and my seeing the post at a time when I was ready for a teacher. I had already started to change my diet and see results, again like a switch based on the book French children don’t throw food (Bringing up Bebe in the US). I suddenly decided I wanted my figure back and that eating what I wanted was no longer my first priority. I was able to reframe not eating sweets as ‘being grown-up’ instead of ‘being deprived, (more than one strategy resulting from more than one book). Currently I have a LOT of temptation for sweets at work. But as I work with diabetes, that is a further motivation to keep on the straight and narrow.

    • Lisa H.

      Ditto for me as I had the exact same reaction to that book (and I got interested in it from Gretchen’s post as well). Now when I quit smoking decades ago I did some reframing around it by looking at it as something I no longer had to do rather than something I was being denied or deprived of. Believe me, I was smoking 3+ packs a day at the time and I needed to smoke! When I looked at it as freedom from smoking it became much easier.

      • Sam

        My Father had a choice: “Eat salt or die.” He is 95 years old now and uses the “Abstainer Strategy” to stay alive. For him, that choice became easy, once he reframed it.

  • Cristina Golban

    Agree with the fact that habits change overnight – i turned to a vegetarian lifestyle overnight on the 11th of november 2012 and now working towards a vegan diet but giving up cheese overnight seems impossible.

  • Suzie

    “It’s the same voice that … you’re standing at the precipice and you
    look down, there’s a voice and it’s a little quiet voice that goes,
    ‘Jump,’ ” Williams told Sawyer. “The same voice that goes, ‘Just one.’
    … And the idea of just one for someone who has no tolerance for it,
    that’s not a possibility.”

    I thought of your “Abstainers” category when I read the above quote from Robin Williams (referring to alcohol in his case).

  • Kara Lane

    I agree with your 5 common mistakes about habits, Gretchen. With regard to #1 (repetition isn’t enough to build a habit), it never made sense to me when I would read it takes 21 days to change a habit. That seemed to imply that no matter who you were, or how ingrained the habit was, or how significant it was (e.g. flossing vs. stopping smoking), 21 days was the magic number.

    One other mistake I would add is thinking that you can change any habit if you have enough willpower. For me anyway, willpower alone has never been enough…especially if I was making a change because I thought I should vs. because I really wanted to change. When I have changed my habits, it has invariably been because I changed my beliefs and because my desire to change was stronger than my desire not to.

    I look forward to checking out “Better than Before” to find out what else you have to say about habits!

    • gretchenrubin

      Yes, the 21 day figure has been disproved. Big surprise – sometimes it takes longer, sometimes shorter, sometimes a habit never forms!

  • Great points, Gretchen! I’ve also recently realized that I tend to think of habit-building in terms of denial and sacrifice, and for me, this is a mistake. I’m much more likely to build a good habit – like going to bed on time – if I frame it as a pleasure. So, instead of telling myself, “Oh, poor me, I have to close my beloved book and go to bed – drudgery!”, I say, “Remember, this isn’t deprivation; this is just a different kind of enjoyment. Sleep is its own pleasure.”

    • gretchenrubin

      This is a GREAT strategy. For habits, it’s very ineffective when we feel deprived – but such a great idea to cast it as its own pleasure.

  • Penelope Schmitt

    And sometimes long-standing habits just sort of fade away. I wrote a LOT in a journal every day for about 25 years. Then I stopped being miserable all the time, my life got better, and I just didn’t NEED to pour my anguish out on paper for pages every day. Some travelogues and other cool observations have gone unrecorded since I stopped doing a lot of journal-writing, but that’s ok. I do keep a ‘one sentence journal’ and I journal or catalogue all my sewing activities, but I don’t ruminate on paper any more. It’s not a BAD thing. But honestly, I would have said that would be a habit I would never, ever lose.
    I finally seem to have learned to floss my teeth for long enough now that my mouth feels awful to me if I don’t. I hope that one is a keeper.
    Walking? eating right? I expect to be fighting to maintain control over those issues as long as I live. Right now I’m holding pretty steady. All the thought and research and other people weighing in here on the blog have been very helpful to me!

  • Chad Haynes

    Loved the content as usual Gretchen! Wise and helpful.

    I will say that the structure of this post was mildly confusing. You led into your points with “here are some of the most common misconceptions:”, but your sub-headlines are actually the points you’re making ABOUT the misconceptions, not the misconceptions themselves.

    Sorry, I get picky when I love things. Liked the post a lot and I don’t mean to troll ^^

    • gretchenrubin

      It’s funny that you mention that. I went back and forth on how to do it – but figured that to state the misconceptions starkly in bold might reinforce them, so put them in as non-misconceptions…but then probably should’ve changed the header. Good catch.

      • Chad Haynes

        That is a good point that I hadn’t thought about. Obviously things like this don’t degrade the quality of the information whatsoever – just being frightfully pedantic ^^

        Thanks for the reply!

  • Joachim Wernersson

    As always nothing but QUALITY content in this article!

    It feels so refreshing to read helpful content written in a way that is easy to digest.
    Way too often it feels like I either read a complex report from a study or just someone writing mumbo jumbo just cause they’re in euphoric state at that point.
    Gretchen really nails the balance in between the two.
    Easy to read text but not a single word that doesn’t have a purpose.

    As a matter of fact Gretchen inspired me to start my own page where I spread my ideas. It isn’t even close to as high quality as this page is but if I help one person improve his or her life then I am more than pleased. If anyone would like to check it out sometime the adress is http://www.happ.ee

    • gretchenrubin

      Thanks so much for the kind words —

  • phoenix1920

    One of the reasons I am SOO anticipating this book is because NONE of the books that I have on habit formation seem to acknowledge these misconceptions. I have learned about each of these firsthand–but #5 is my favorite. I think brainstorming and talking about how to change habits with others is SOO helpful because a lot of times, we can find ways to change from others. But you have to talk to a lot of people often because you need to find the approach that works for you!

    One of things that I have recently come across is a saying, “Are your excuses stronger than your desire?” I perceive myself to be a very strong person who loves challenges, so when I want to take a break and rest after a hard day, instead of tackling my current challenge in losing weight, I ask myself this one question. It may be a lightening bolt, but I don’t want to speak too soon–it’s only been one week.

  • Jeanne

    The mistake I almost never see when dealing with breaking habits (as opposed to starting a new one) is that people fail to take into account the payoffs the habit is giving them. These payoffs are often petty or neurotic or unhealthy or destructive, so naturally, people don’t want to admit to getting them. Much easier to pretend that the bad habit has no upside (it’s ONLY bad!) and be mystified about why it stays to tightly in place. Possible payoffs are feeling safe, feeling comfort, getting revenge, etc. No one continues to repeat behaviors over and over if they are not getting some kind of payoff. Some of the payoffs can link back to childhood, and are terribly painful to confront. But if not dealt with, the habit will remain, even if it’s eventually fatal, such as addictions to drugs or alcohol. So, the question to ask and answer honestly is, “What’s the payoff?” And then to figure out some healthier way to get the payoff.

  • Cara

    I am good at breaking or keeping some kinds of habits, most clearly those which only really involve a clean break – for instance, giving up smoking, giving up Facebook, committing to regular instrument practice, regular exercise etc. I just have to access my stubborn side in these cases. I work much better just ripping off the plaster in one go and not by tearing a bit off a day..but I find this just doesn’t work with my more emotional dilemmas..for instance, how do I stop myself becoming small and wretchedly appeasing when my mother treats me with absolute disrespect and cruelty..or when a friend treats me badly, I end up behaving like the guilty one..it’s those kind of habits I am desperate to break..when you can’t just rip it off and throw it away, when it’s constantly tearing at you, how do you stay strong?

    • Penelope Schmitt

      Dealing with a parent who is difficult (or destructive) is a tough one.
      If you do not LIVE with your difficult parent, …
      I recommend setting firm boundaries. I, for instance, accepted that my Mom was not going to change, and decided I would no longer wrangle with her over many things. I simply kept my visits infrequent (1 or 2 a year) and short. In those times I would remind myself “it’s only 3 days” or whatever, and just not engage in any fights.
      I also limited phone calls to ONE per week. I called her at a specific time and talked with her for an hour. The rest of the week, I did not call, and if she called me, I reminded myself that I was free to say that I had company or was busy or whatever. Knowing that I had a firm boundary helped me enormously.
      Identifying what ‘the game’ was that my Mom liked to play also helped a great deal. Is there a pattern of argument or abuse that happens that always ‘ends up like you are the guilty one’?
      I used to experience that. I learned to refuse to respond when prodded. I mean to the extent of just saying absolutely nothing. She got very angry, frustrated, and tearful because I was (as she put it) hard and cold. But at least we didn’t both wind up in tears with ME apologizing for what SHE started. Sometimes she wound up in tears, but I did not have to apologize to her or comfort her for her own self-created distress.
      Eventually you have to let HER own her behavior and suffer the consequences for it by herself. Figure out what the pattern is, and then figure out how to break it. You might need some counseling to help you. I am betting your problems with friends are similar to your issues with your Mom. When you figure out the one, the other will take care of itself, and you won’t need ‘friends’ who behave like your Mom.
      Now my Mom is 90 and she lives with me. I am having to deal with these issues every day, and they are complicated by her increasing dementia. Not fun. But the boundaries I set long ago, and learning how not to play the usual games–both have helped me to have a better relationship with her as she grows older and more infirm. I would also add that learning how to deal with the bad side of our relationship has helped me to enjoy the better aspects of common history and shared tastes and all that sort of thing.

      • Cara

        Thanks so much for this kind and thoughtful advice. I’ve reflected on it, and I think you are absolutely right – I need to work out the patterns that we both fall into..and the boundaries and friends comments are spot on. Thankyou. Sending you my very best wishes to you in your current situation..

  • Leena

    Hi! I just finished your book The Happiness Project, or Onnellisuusprojekti (try to guess the language 😉 I think the book was sweet, but it makes me feel, not happy, but sad. Something is missing. I’d like to read the book, where the next Project would be, darkness, sadness and badness(and now I checked that kind of word doesn’t exist, or is it). The answers are there, in the dark valley. And at the end sorry, my english is not correct but more understandable for you than my motherlanguage, and secondly I’m even vegeterian, because I don’t want to heart animals, so you have to put those dark-words in right context. Maybe the enjoy lives in the moon, and not in the sun.

    • phoenix1920

      Is it Finnish? But your English is very nice–and your words make my spiritual side want to hear more. Sometimes, inside feelings just don’t translate well. (SISU!) Tervetuloa!

      • Leena

        It is finnish, indeed, you have some experience of that, I see. People should try to find some kind of truth, and it’s not possible, if you don’t go to your dark sides, or the area of which is not acceptable in our society nowadays. It means, how much I hate my parents, some or do I want to murder them, or, what is my racism, who I spurn(hopely right word?), how I live, who are my slaves(animals?), am I a slave to whom? When I don’t do what I want, who is my master, I don’t want to make mad. Why I live like a child, feeling quilty all the time and being afraid, and try to keep satisfied my Masters. What if I’m not so good person that I try to tell myself and to the other people. What if I don’t love, I don’t honour anybody or anything anymore, I just say so…
        Here is something for a start, when you try to make yourself complete. And then the awful thing is to feel those all deeply, after tens of years.

        • phoenix1920

          You think deeply and intensely, which is a good thing–but difficult. Finding the truth and acknowledging the darkness within us all–I wonder how many people do. . . Thank you for sharing more of your thoughts! My family was from a part of Finland that Russia took, but I have never visited and speak very little Finnish.
          -Lyyli

          • Leena

            Oh, so that explains for those finnish words. My father’s home was also in Karelian(now in Russia). Our unhappiness depends pretty much of, that how much our lives are far away of our true and deep nature. The more we have to lie every day, from the Morning to the evening to the other people and to ourselves, the worse we start to feel after years and years. That’s why many middle-age and older women (and men also) behave and talk like mentally ills, they have lost their balance under all those lies, and untruthful lifestyle.
            If we are too scared to make a choice, we really want to, and live in way, we really want to, we can ask “do I want to lose my mind”, it gives you power to be against the people, and against this lifestyle, of which is pure violence to the animals, nature and many people.
            So good luck to the dark valley. There’s no light in the end, because the people of this world are so bad, and they have spread that suffer and darkness to everywhere. But there is great enjoy of feeling strong, being fearless, and enjoy of doing those things you was born to, and what are your soul’s deepist desire. No happiness, but enjoy and passion, and maybe great adventures.
            But the first step is learn to suffer, and face the ugly and unpleasant truth 😉

  • Anja

    Is the “Strategy of the Lightning Bolt” an incorrect link? It is linking me to an article with some pieces of wisdom from your sister, where I don’t see anything relevant to habit formation.

  • Great post Gretchen, I’m new to the blog but I love your approach. I think one thing about habits (and a big one I’ve been concentrating on) is the thought behind why I want to do the habit. I have to think about the positive change I’m making. If I don’t, the habit will go right out the window.

  • sailormac

    Habits can change overnight.
    Twice in my life, I have experienced the phenomenon where something went ‘click’ in my head. And with it came change.
    Here is the critical reality; no one can control when, if or how something will go ‘click’ in their heads

    • gretchenrubin

      Yes, that’s the Strategy of the Lightning Bolt. Highly effective, but impossible to invoke.

  • Michelle

    Hi Gretchen – point 5 The Same Strategies Don’t Work for Everyone makes me wonder just how similar and how different our brains are – have you looked in to how changing habits is different for DSM categorised conditions that affect how communication is occurring in the brain, for example ADHD? I’v heard that for those with ADHD changing habits takes at least twice as long and it doesn’t matter how much you want to do something and consider it important. I wonder if a book such as yours can address this question or if the approach needs to be very specific for adults and children with ADHD?