The Good, the Bad, and the Fugly!
Good habits are hard to keep
I don’t generally remember lines from movies until I’ve seen them a dozen times or so, which happens a lot because I channel surf and re-watch movies I like. (I tend to catch them after they’ve started, so I’ll see the beginning once or twice and the last two-thirds of the movie ten times or more!) So the fact that I remember lots of movie lines isn’t remarkable. What IS remarkable is when I remember a line from a movie after seeing it just one time.
One such line is from Rocky II. And even though I’ve seen that movie plenty of times over the years, I remembered that line from the moment Apollo Creed said the words. “I’m gonna drop him like a bad habit.”
I understand what it means – to quickly drop something that’s negative or bad for you – but it always struck me as odd because bad habits are so damned difficult to drop! Seriously, if you want to imply that something is going to be easy, you should use a different analogy. If Apollo wanted to imply that he’d drop Rocky quickly and easily, he should’ve said, “I’m gonna drop him like a GOOD habit.” Because you and I know that bad habits are hard to drop, while good habits seem to disappear on their own.
“Why are good habits so hard to maintain?”
If a habit is good for you, it seems logical that it would be easier to create and maintain because of that. Of course, our experience tells us otherwise but the reason isn’t always completely obvious.
Let’s be honest: Most good habits are good in the long run. There’s very little immediate gratification but if we just stick with the workout schedule and stop eating snacks between meals, we’ll feel great... a year from now!
Yeah, okay. So I need to go through 12 months of grueling workouts, battling food cravings the entire time, just so I’ll “feel better” in a year? How about I just skip the workout and eat the bag of chips? I’ll feel better right now!
Of course, we might love just kicking back – and the greasy, salty goodness of all those chips will taste great in the moment – but that moment is fleeting. Afterward, we’ll feel lazy, bloated, and discouraged. We’ll get down on ourselves for being so damned weak and swear to ourselves we’ll start working out... tomorrow!
“Bad habits are easy because they’re short-term?”
Yes, that’s almost always the case! Some good habits have short-term benefits but almost ALL of our bad habits provide instant gratification. If they didn’t, we wouldn’t do them. We really would “drop them like a bad habit!”
If you’re a little hungry or bored or maybe a bit stressed, eating a snack gives you instant gratification. I know people with a “sweet tooth,” so things like candy, cookies, and ice cream are their downfall. Me? I’m a greasy, salty kinda guy. Give me a bag of kettle chips or a can of cocktail peanuts, and I’ll chow down a few hundred calories in a matter of minutes! I absolutely love the taste, so I truly enjoy it in the moment.
Instant gratification doesn’t just come from food either. When I have a work assignment that I’m dreading and I notice there are 50 unread emails in my inbox, I’ll tell myself, “Let me quickly take care of some of these first.” Two minutes later, I’ve responded to an email and –- BOOM! – my brain gives me a tiny little shot of dopamine because I completed a task! So I take care of another one – and another one – and I keep getting these tiny little shots of dopamine that make me feel good for a moment. I feel like a winner!
And then I realize it’s time for my next meeting and I haven’t even started on the important (but dreadful) assignment I should’ve been working on all along.
“Good habits don’t give us a shot of dopamine? That’s a fugly situation!”
Yup. It kinda sucks. But actually, they probably could give us more of a boost, if we framed them differently in our minds. If we think about things properly, then completing a good task (which will hopefully become a good habit) won’t feel like one minuscule little step towards some ridiculously far-off goal. It can feel like validation of who we are, which can bring us immediate gratification (and maybe a little shot of dopamine to boot).
If I decide to run a marathon someday, then I’ve set a goal that’s a LONG way off. Dragging my ass out of bed at 6 AM to run a few miles is just grueling and, well, I’m really tired today. And it might rain. So I’ll just do it tomorrow.
But if I reframe the way I think about myself and focus less on a specific goal, then the way I feel changes. If I think of myself as a runner – someone who runs – and I stop worrying about some far-off race I might run someday, then dragging out of bed at 6 AM isn’t about some distant future. It’s about RIGHT NOW! It proves that I AM A RUNNER. Right here, right now. I am a runner and this is what runners do. I get out there in the early morning light and I feel great because the simple fact that I’m out there validates the way I define myself.
The bottom line:
When we try to create good habits and our sole purpose is to support some extremely long-term, far off goal, it forces us to use lots of will power to create and maintain those habits. Bad habits are easy because they usually provide instant gratification, which makes them so tempting to continue.
But there is power in self-validation, so spend some time really thinking about who you are and who you want to become. Determine your desired identity and then reframe how you see your actions.
Clearly defining the identity you want to maintain turns completion of those good habits into immediate validation of your new identity – it turns good habits into small but significant victories. The satisfaction you get from all those little victories can go a long way towards helping you develop and maintain your new good habits!