The Dark Side of Any Good Habit
Don’t think a good habit alone will change your life.
We spend so much time focusing on building good habits for ourselves. We live and die by our routines. We look at the good habits of some of the most successful people in the world and try to emulate their routines.
Therefore, once you finally build that good habit, be it meditation, reading, working out, or writing, for instance, you become proud of yourself and your new identity. You give yourself a big fat slap on the back for incorporating such good practices into your lifestyle.
As such habits become ingrained and familiar in your routine, you might feel that they no longer provide you with the same fulfillment they did at first. You begin to feel like time is moving by too fast. You don’t experience much novelty in your life. You feel like your practice is becoming less efficient and productive. And most of all, you don’t feel like you’re progressing or improving very much.
You thought that these good habits would change your life for the better. Perhaps they did for a while, but eventually, somewhere along your journey, you returned back to baseline. Your new habit has become your new standard. Automatic, absent of intention.
Good Habits Aren’t Always Good
For the longest time, I wanted to become an Olympic Water Polo athlete. I got into the habit of practicing every single day, watching what I ate, and always showing up to give it my all. This habitual behavior got me into one of the best colleges for the sport in the US. I’d say that got me pretty far.
But, once I got into playing at that elite level, my habits didn’t change, but something odd did. I started my journey in college performing at very high levels, but as time went on, instead of getting better, I got worse. Or perhaps everyone around me got better and I didn’t move much at all.
I still worked hard. I never gave an excuse. I refused to give up. I maintained my higher ambitions. So, what happened?
My practice wasn’t deliberate. My behavior was automatic. My mind was clinging to my old identity. Therefore I was unconcious of my performance, mistakes, and errors.
This is everything that can go wrong with a good habit. You get comfortable with your trajectory. You get comfortable with the standards that you are living by. You lose sight of who you could be by tethering to who you used to be.
In this sense, your good habits — of both the mind and action — can paradoxically be a major cause of your future downfall. Even James Clear, the author of Atomic Habits (brilliant book b.t.w.), implores his readers to be wary of the potential drawbacks of good habits, namely caused by mindless action and deep dependence on your own self-identity.
The Perils of Automatic Action
The whole point of building a habit in the first place is to make the desired action automatic and easily repeatable without much resistance. Perhaps you want to get into the habit of reading. Maybe you want to learn how to code so you sit down to learn a bit every day. Hell, you could even say that you want to become good at playing the piano so you want to make it more of a habit to play every night after work.
Standardizing a habit is a great start and perhaps is one of the most important steps in building a healthy habit, but once you standardize, do you continue to optimize?
- Are you just playing piano or are you actually becoming a better pianist? Are you just playing the same songs or are you learning new songs that are increasingly more difficult than the last? Are you just reading notes or are you trying to memorize the song and add in your own unique modifications?
- Are you just meditating, or are you actively living a more mindful life? Are you applying the awareness and calm you feel during meditation to your daily life in the form of mindfulness? Are you increasing the intensity of your practice? Are you observing your thoughts beyond your sessions?
- Are you becoming a better reader or are you just reading because it’s your habit to do so? Are you only reading faster or are you retaining more? Are you seeing patterns in what you read, applying what you learn, and attempting to internalize all the information that enters your mind?
Automatic behavior is good. I’m not going to argue against that. But you’ll quickly realize that there are levels to everything that you do.
If you want to achieve mastery in something. If you want your actions to bear meaning. If you want to constantly make an impact on your life through your habits. You’ll need to make your habit more than automatic. You need to make your habit deliberate, intentional, and purposeful.
Learn to Let Go and Adapt
What makes habits so powerful, so ingrained in your psyche and daily life, is that they are tethered to your identity. You attach yourself to the identity your habits create for you.
You don’t just play sports, you are an athlete. You are someone who loves competing in team sports for pure athleticism.
You don’t just read, you are a reader. You are the type of person that loves reading and would rather set aside time for a book than a movie.
You don’t just code, but you are a programmer. You are the type of person that can sit down and build something through simple lines of code.
Eventually, there comes a time where your identity is no longer progressing you. Maybe you are in a transitionary period of your life where you will no longer be able to hold that identity.
For example, I was a water polo athlete for roughly 12 years of my life. I competed in team and individual sports since I was old enough to do so. All my life, I identified as an athlete.
So imagine the grief and struggle I felt when the day came that I had to stop playing water polo. I was lost. I had a hard time finding myself. I spent my whole life defining myself in one way just to eventually find myself no longer being that person. So this raised the question: “Who am I now?”
Obviously, I had a major identity crisis. Surely you’ve felt something similar in your life.
The best thing to do here is to broaden your identity in a way that will open up opportunity and possibility for you through a mere change in perspective.
For me, that meant to no longer tell myself, “I’m an athlete”, but rather to instead broaden my perspective and tell myself, “I’m the type of person that loves a physical challenge, is mentally tough, and is disciplined in my work ethic and outlook”.
If you’re a programmer, a founder, or some sort of engineer that suddenly finds themselves moving into a position absent of your previous duties, tell yourself instead that you’re the type of person who builds, creates, and imagines things into existence.
You can’t let your habits dictate every facet of your life. You need to always harness control of your identity with an innate capability of adapting to all future possibilities of your life.
Remember, Don’t Allow Routine to Take Over Your Life
Habits are great. Habits allow you to seamlessly build yourself into the person that you want to become. The problem is, you’re doing the same thing every day.
As Michael Easter illuminates in this article, time seems to fly away from you when you get stuck into a routine — we fall out of the moment and into autopilot. In order to slow down the clock, we need to experience more novelty.
When a habit becomes ingrained into your life, it’s easy to feel that time just flies by. That’s why it’s important to always experiment with new things. Find new ways to experience your habits. Or even give your habits a small break so that you can go out and experience life a bit more.
Remember, don’t let your habits control you or who you are. Always be the one in control of your habits. Be intentional with your action. Be the one who constantly defines your identity. Allow yourself to experience beyond the confines of your habits.