Your New Year’s resolution this year might never become a true “habit” — but that’s probably OK, according to Nir Eyal, a bestselling author and behavioral design expert.
Eyal works with companies to build habit-forming products — whether it’s helping patients take medication on a schedule or getting people to regularly use a product for learning a new language. He’s 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 mind, being able to harness your attention is “the most important skill of the century,” but it’s not something we formally learn — which is also what makes it so crucial to understand better.
The first step toward being less distracted in the pursuit of our goals, including New Year’s resolutions? We need to understand what can and can’t become a habit.
The difference between habit and routine
The trouble, in Eyal’s eyes, is simple: We want to turn everything into 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,” Eyal says. “Most of the things that people want to turn into a habit will never be a habit.”
Meanwhile, a routine is “a series of behaviors frequently repeated,” he adds. “Eventually, some routines can become habits, but not every routine can become a habit.”
Approximately 45% of our daily behaviors are habits, like where we eat meals each day or how we get ready for bed. So, the logic goes, if only we could figure out a way to “hack” our New Year’s resolutions and turn them into habits, we’d be well on our way to completing them without even thinking about it.
But habits are just that — instinctual, performed without thought and largely subconscious. Accomplishing a new goal will always take some degree of effort, even if it’s something you do regularly, like going to the gym or writing. “If a behavior is effortful, it can’t be a habit by its very definition,” Eyal says. “We need to stop telling people everything can become a habit. It can’t.”
All the while, there’s a wide cultural emphasis on the ease and importance of building habits, rather than routines, Eyal notes, and the problem isn’t merely a matter of semantics.
“What happens is people say, ‘Oh, I read this book … that told me I can turn everything into a habit. And then, after a month or two, they look back and say, ‘Wait a minute. This isn’t easy. This isn’t on autopilot … but the book told me this was something I could put on autopilot.'”
From there, the problem snowballs: Eyal says people then think “there must be something broken — not in the methodology, but in me … and so they give up altogether. And now, we leave them worse off than when we started.”
Expect changes to be hard
Instead of aiming for habits, he says people should focus more on building routines, since, by definition, routines acknowledge the difficulty of changing patterns.
“If we tell people, ‘Look, some behaviors are going to be hard — always, if you’re doing them right,'” Eyal says, that’s better than “teaching people that things can be somehow easy,” which is the subliminal 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 a bad thing. “If you feel bad, you’re getting better,” he says. “Expect it to be hard.”
“Many of these behaviors require us to put in effort,” he continues. We shouldn’t think that there’s a “magical formula” that can turn anything into an automatic, second-nature habit in just three steps, Eyal says. “Rather, here are tools to help you deal with the inevitable discomfort that is going to come from getting better at something.”
Sign up now: Get smarter about your money and career with our weekly newsletter