Your New Year’s resolution may never become a real “habit” this year — but that’s probably okay, according to Nir Eyal, a best-selling author and behavioral design expert.
Eyal works with companies to develop addictive products — whether that’s to help patients take medication on a specific schedule or getting people to regularly use a product to learn a new language. He is also the author of Indistractable: How to Control Your Attention and Choose Your Life, which focuses on how we break habits associated with distraction.
In Eyal’s eyes, capturing his attention is “the most important skill of the century,” but it’s not something we learn formally — which also makes it so important to understand it better.
The first step to becoming less distracted while pursuing our goals, including New Year’s resolutions? We need to understand what can and cannot become a habit.
The difference between habit and routine
The problem, for Eyal, is simple: we want to make everything a habit—without understanding the fundamental difference between a habit and a routine.
“The definition of a habit is the impulse to do a behavior with little or no conscious thought,” says Eyal. “Most things that people try to make a habit will never be a habit.”
Meanwhile, a routine is “a set of behaviors that is frequently repeated,” he adds. “Eventually, some routines can become habit, but not every routine can become habit.”
About 45% of our daily behavior is habits, like where we eat each day or how we get ready for bed. So the logic is, if we could just figure out a way to “hack” our New Year’s resolutions and turn them into habits, we’d be well on our way to fulfilling them without even thinking about it.
But habits are just that — instinctively, without thinking, and largely subconsciously. Achieving a new goal always requires some level of effort, even if you do it regularly, like going to the gym or writing. “By definition, if a behavior is stressful, it can’t be a habit,” says Eyal. “We have to stop telling people that everything can become a habit. It can’t.”
Meanwhile, there’s a broad cultural emphasis on the ease and importance of building habit rather than routine, Eyal notes, and the problem isn’t just a matter of semantics.
“What happens is people are like, ‘Oh, I read that book … it told me I could make anything a habit. And then, after a month or two, they look back and say, ‘Wait a minute. This isn’t on autopilot…but the book told me I could put this on autopilot.”
From there, the problem comes to a head: Eyal says people then think, “There must be something broken — not in the methodology, but in me… and that’s why they give up altogether.” And now we leave them worse off than when we started.”
Expect change to be difficult
Rather than targeting habits, people should focus more on building routines because routines, by definition, acknowledge the difficulty of changing patterns.
“If we tell people, ‘Look, some behaviors are going to be difficult—anytime you do them right,'” says Eyal, that’s better than “teaching people that things can be kind of easy,” which the subliminal is emphasis on habits.
Eyal adds that many people assume that when they feel bad about a new behavior they’re trying to develop, it’s inherently bad. “If you’re feeling down, you’re going to feel better,” he says. “Expect it to be difficult.”
“A lot of these behaviors require effort,” he continues. We shouldn’t think there’s a “magic formula” that can turn anything into an automatic habit in just three steps, says Eyal. “Rather, here are tools to help you deal with the inevitable discomfort that comes with getting better at something.”
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