The Imperfectionist: Against good habits

Against good habits

This week, because I like a challenge, or perhaps just because I’m an annoying contrarian, I’d like to try to persuade you that cultivating good habits can be bad for you.

Or to put the point a little more precisely: I think one of the subtler psychological obstacles to building a creative and fulfilling life – in other words, to actually getting around to the things we most want to do with our finite weeks on earth – is the idea that we first need to become the kind of person who does those things all the time. You want to become, say, the kind of person who meditates, or writes or makes videos or podcasts on a regular basis, or finds more time for your kids – and so you conclude, understandably enough, that what’s needed is to develop certain good habits in those areas. The trouble is that “developing good habits” all too easily gets in the way of just doing the damn thing now.

Two quick examples from my own life: a while back, I was feeling sad that I wasn’t in closer touch with a few specific friends. But before I could alight on the obvious remedy – reaching out to one of those friends, later that day – I’d already raced ahead mentally to how I was going to inculcate a new habit of reaching out to at least one such friend per week. Around the same time, I thought of a new project I could launch via my website – one that I’d enjoy, that might benefit others, and that could generate income. So did I take a few initial actions to get started, like a sensible person would? Reader, I did not. Instead, I decided I needed to come up with a whole plan for how I would regularly make time in my schedule for such ventures.

Obviously – and in true contrarian spirit, this is the part of the post where I retreat from the attention-grabbing claim in the headline, to something more reasonable – I don’t really think there’s no value in building good habits. There clearly is. Several recent and deservedly popular books on the topic converge on the wisdom that slow, incremental, and easily doable micro-changes can snowball into significant long-term transformations.

Nonetheless, I do think it’s often the case that the project of habit-building can serve as an invitation to avoidance. Sometimes that’s because the idea of building a habit seems rather daunting, and so you conclude that it’s best left until you have more time, later this year, or whatever. At other times, the idea of “building a habit” is so appealing precisely because the change in question is scary or uncomfortable – and so treating it as a long-term project is a convenient way of putting off the difficult stuff to another time.

What we’re craving when we use habit-building as avoidance in this way, I think, is our old friend, the feeling of control: we want to see ourselves as the captain of the superyacht, standing confidently on the bridge, steering our life to the point at which we’ll finally feel adequate, acceptable, and on top of things. Devising schemes for self-improvement obviously feeds into that fantasy, whereas just doing something today, as a one-off – just writing a chapter of the short story, just suggesting a meetup with a friend, just going for a run – requires the surrender of control. It means launching your little canoe onto the rapids and letting life take you wherever it’s going to take you. It means risking that you’ll do the thing badly, and the certainty that you’ll do it imperfectly.

So my challenge – to myself as much as to anyone else, as ever – is as follows. What’s one thing you could do, today, that you know would be a good way to use a small portion of your time, and would you be willing to actually do it? I’m precisely not talking about “relaunching your meditation practice”, but instead just meditating once, today. And not “writing for thirty minutes a day”, but just writing for one period of thirty minutes. Just doing it, once. But actually doing it.

Because the irony, of course, is that just doing it once today is ultimately the only way to become “the kind of person” who does that sort of thing on a regular basis anyway. Otherwise (and believe me, I’ve been there) you’re merely the kind of person who spends your life drawing up plans and schemes for how you’re going to become a different kind of person at some point in the future which never quite arrives. And that’s not the same thing at all.

My New York Times bestselling book Four Thousand Weeks: Time Management for Mortals is available wherever you get your books, and you might also be interested in my just-released TedX Manchester talk, ‘Why patience is a superpower’. I’d love to hear from you – just hit reply. (I read all messages, and try to respond, though I don’t always manage.) If you received this email from a friend, and would like to subscribe, please go here.

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