Notes from a Floating Life Thoughts about productivity, digital living, and leading a simpler life

When (Good) Habits Become Shackles

A pair of feet, with chains around the ankles

We all have habits, both good and bad. Many of us work quite hard to break the bad ones. We work equally hard to form new, good habits.

Habits are a powerful tool As I tell my people, one of keys to mastering what they want to master is to develop new habits.

As powerful and useful as habits are, they have a negative side. Even good habits can turn into shackles when they become routine. And I mean routine in a bad way.

That sounds at odds with one of the ideas behind forming habits — you want them to become part of your routine. And that’s true. What I mean by routine, though, is when you feel need to do something because you have to, not because you want to or enjoy doing it. When you’re going through the motions rather than being attentive and mindful about what you’re doing.

When that happens, the habit becomes a chore. You question all the time and work you put into forming it.

Take, for example, a friend of mine. He needed to make a few lifestyle changes to improve his health. So, he started an exercise routine. It’s become a habit, but not in a good way. He exercises at the same time every day. He does the same routine, in the same order, for the same amount of time and number of repetitions each day. In recent weeks, he’s become bored. He’s lacking the motivation to continue. And while he put in a lot of effort to develop that exercise habit, he’s on the verge of abandoning it.

That habit has become a pair of shackles. He’s locked into his routine. But it doesn’t have to be that way.

The key to breaking those shackles isn’t to abandon the habit. It isn’t to form a new, replacement habit. The key is to shake things up a bit. To shuffle things around. To add some variety.

Going back to my friend, I advised him to try switching things up. I told him to do squats and deadlifts and cleans with heavier weights on Mondays and Fridays. On Tuesdays and Thursdays, do body weight exercises mixed in with time on an elliptical machine. On other days, try working with kettlebells and lighter weights.

This advice doesn’t just apply to exercise. Say you want to drink water when you first get up in the morning. Water itself can be bland. Why not add a squeeze or lemon or lime some mornings? Small tweaks and adjustments can have as big an impact as an overhaul.

Think about the habit that’s shackling you, then think about ways to mix things up, to switch things around. You don’t have to do anything radical — tweak your habit, don’t hack it.

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