How to Start a Habit You Don’t Enjoy

by | May 25, 2016
Photo by douglemoine

Photo by douglemoine

Something amazing happened this morning.

Instead of hopping out of bed, having breakfast, then plunging myself headlong into work, I casually sipped my coffee, ate my muesli, then wandered into my office for a 30 minute meditation session before even turning on my computer.

What’s amazing isn’t that I’ve done this once, but that I’ve been doing it for months.

Even more amazing is that I love it.

Meditation is not an easy habit to develop, because the reward is not immediate or obvious.

Sure I know what the reward is in theory. Meditation is supposed to help me focus better, reduce stress and increase contentment.

It should help me be more creative and do better work. It should help me build deeper relationships with the people I love. It should be easier for me to appreciate the important things.

Only it’s incredibly frustrating to try to focus on my breath when new thoughts distract me every few seconds. It takes time out of my day I could really use for other important things. And during most of the session I feel like a total failure.

I want all those benefits, but gawd I’d rather watch paint dry.

Of course meditation isn’t the only habit that fits in the “I know I should, but this really doesn’t feel very rewarding” category.

I felt the exact same way about flossing my teeth, which I now do daily (even on vacation!).

For you maybe it’s getting enough exercise or eating vegetables that still feels more like a chore than a rewarding habit.

So how can you get over the hump?

When you struggle to form a new habit the easiest thing to do is blame yourself for being ill-equipped or blame the world for conspiring against you.

But you and I both know that’s a cop out.

Instead of bemoaning the things you can’t control, focus on the things you can. Figure out what the real problem is, then devise a strategy to get around it.

Three steps for forming a habit that isn’t rewarding

1) Identify your barriers

The first step is self-awareness. Ask yourself what it really is that you don’t enjoy about the activity.

For meditation, I realized that the amount of time I was expecting to devote to it (20 min) was just too much. Since I didn’t find it rewarding, it was always the first thing to fall off the bottom of my to-do list.

Another reason I found meditation frustrating is that every time my mind would wander it felt like a mini failure, like I wasn’t doing it right. This made me feel discouraged that I wasn’t making progress.

For flossing, I realized that I hated putting my fingers in my mouth. After a few teeth were flossed the string would get slimy and sticky, and I would want to stop and clean off my cheeks and fingers multiple times during a session. Gross.

2) Research solutions

Step two is actively seeking solutions to the barriers you’ve identified.

For meditation, I took what I know about tiny habits and applied it to my time problem. Instead of making myself sit still for 20 minutes, I started by sitting with my eyes closed and taking a few deep breaths each morning. Even I have time for that, and was able to keep it up without a problem.

My tiny habit was a huge step in getting myself used to taking a timeout to focus on my breath, but it didn’t solve the frustration of longer sessions.

To get through this barrier, I had to learn more about the process of meditation. For this I read books, tried different apps, and spoke with people who meditate regularly.

I quickly learned that my problem of feeling like I was failing is incredibly common among new meditators (phew, it isn’t just me). I also discovered a handful of new strategies to reduce the feeling of failure.

This led to the most helpful insight I had about meditation: that the failures ARE the practice, and success is simply practicing regularly.

This allowed me to let go of the judgement I felt during every session, and ironically made it easier for me to maintain concentration for longer. Meditation became far less tedious and more rewarding.

For flossing I was less active about finding a solution, and as a consequence it took way longer to solve.

Fortunately though, a friend had a similar problem and told me his dentist recommend a simple device that allowed you to floss easily without having to put your fingers in your mouth. It isn’t anything fancy, just a more sturdy version of the single use flossers that normally don’t work very well.

For ten bucks I solved a problem that I had ignored for 30 years. I now floss at least once a day, sometimes twice.

I want to kick myself for taking so long to figure this out.

3) Follow through to experience indirect rewards

Steps 1 & 2 are about removing barriers, but the reward doesn’t come until you follow through.

I won’t pretend that I love the process of meditating or flossing. I don’t.

What I love is the feeling of doing something that improves my life and is good for me. Instead of direct pleasure, it’s more about getting away from a state that I know I don’t enjoy.

These are indirect rewards.

The best analogy I can think of is a shower. Yes it can feel nice to stand naked in warm running water, but for me the greatest reward of showering is simply no longer feeling dirty. I love for my face to feel clean, my hair to feel shiny and soft, my skin to smell subtly of peppermint.

Before a shower I feel sticky and lethargic. After a shower I feel refreshed and energized.

Similarly, when I go for too long without meditating my brain starts to feel cloudy and congested. After I have meditated I feel clear and calm, and better able to do the things I love to do.

Now that I floss regularly, brushing alone doesn’t make my teeth feel clean enough.

Because these rewards are indirect––they do not come as a result of the habit itself, but of counteracting the effect of inaction––you can only feel the benefit after significant repetition.

This is why removing barriers for difficult habits is so important. You have to repeat the action enough for it to actually become rewarding. And to do that it has to be easy.

In my experience, healthy habits in general have strong indirect rewards. For example, I love the taste of Real Food, but I often choose these healthier foods specifically because I don’t want to feel foggy and lethargic after eating, as I inevitably do after eating processed foods.

And sometimes I’m not in the mood for exercise, but I know that I will feel better afterward even if it’s hard.

Indirect rewards are elusive, but if deep down you believe you can benefit from an action then it’s worth going through the process of figuring out a solution.

It’s not easy, but it works.

Have you experienced the benefit of indirect rewards?

Originally published May 12, 2015.

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20 Responses to “How to Start a Habit You Don’t Enjoy”

  1. Annette says:

    Darya, I needed this article today! What you explained about indirect rewards really made sense to me. I’m usually good at removing barriers…it’s the follow through where I get stuck. Focusing on the indirect rewards is a new way for me to approach the habits I’m trying to develop. Thank you. You’ve really helped me make some healthy changes ovrr the past year. Loved your book. A.

  2. Jane Pendry says:

    Hey Darya, thanks so much for sharing. I’ve been finding habit formulation increasingly interesting and from your writing I’ve started to understand that my food habits can be approached in a similar way to the other habits I’d like to form in my life. I recently published my own piece on habit forming

    I was looking at how I developed a regular yoga practice. Essentially I feel the difference was that my motivation was craving a sense of wellbeing rather than an external motivator (for example my usual diet motivation of loosing weight to fit into my skinny jeans!). Much in line with your thoughts on direct and indirect rewards.

    Secondly and practically, the routine was easy to follow: the studio was right beside the office and I could fit in a class before or after work. There were showers in the studio and I could leave my yoga mat there. These points may sound minor but on reflection they were vital. For other habits I had tried to form I often found I was having to make multiple decisions each time I tried to take the action. For example if I was attending a class after work and had to pack my toiletries and take my yoga mat to work I might not bother because I didn’t want to carry those items around with me when I met a friend for dinner after class. The practicalities surrounding the routine had to be as simple, easy and adaptable as possible. Effectively I automated the decision making process and therefore removed the barriers to completing the behaviour.

    Always great to be reminded of the points you have raised, thanks again.

    Best wishes, Jane

  3. Alejandro Diaz says:

    Welcome to the club Darya! The meditator’s club that is 🙂
    I’ve been meditating for a little over a year now. I meditate 20-30mins twice a day. Seinfeld once said, that if he had meditated twice a day back in the day when doing his show, the show would of lasted more seasons. But he felt exhausted.
    Meditating twice a day gives you more energy and calm, and require less sleep time.
    If I could, I would learn Transcendental Meditation, scientifically proven to be the most healthful type of meditation.
    If I could share something with you, I would say if your going to meditate, do it all the way, twice a day 😉 , to reap more health benefits, double the benefits!
    I look at it this way, by 5:30pm when I get home I feel very tired, the second meditation is a godsend, your battery is recharged and you ready for what’s next. Ready to make and have dinner, green lights all the way, most of the time.
    Also, don’t let your mind fool ya, when meditating, enjoy your meditation, intent is important, when meditating, just be. I say that to myself each time I meditate or when I feel that 20mins is going to be too much or whatever. I say to myself: just be… relax… enjoy… this is good… 🙂 this is my time, get that awareness going… and pay attention to that beautiful breathe afterwards.
    “Water the root. Enjoy the fruit.” That’s what they say.
    I’m a long time reader of your site, and a long time follower of Kevin. You’re my favorite people on the Internets.
    Happy meditating Darya! 😛

  4. jody deschenes says:

    silly but i’m never going to be able to form a flossing habit until it is possible to do it without throwing waxed string & maybe plastic on top of that, into a landfill every day of my life. i don’t know if there is a way around this. ): ): ):

    • Andreya says:

      You’re not alone! I can’t stand the thought of throwing more plastic into the world’s overflowing landfills, even if it means healthier teeth and gums for me. I’m still in the process of looking for an alternative, so if anyone’s got a solution, please be kind and share! 🙂

  5. E says:

    That was exactly my problem with flossing (also, I always felt like the floss was digging into my fingers), and exactly my solution. Love that little stick!

  6. Fred says:

    As a waste reduction advocate I give Jody permission to throw some floss in the trash. True waste is a problem, but trading gum health for the cause is a false choice. Landfills will not disappear. Someday they will be cleaned up and waste materials used or processed for energy. Floss is a de minimis amount of waste. Businesses have not adopted zero waste policies so any product or service likely generates substantial waste. Spend your new energy, derived from not having gum inflammation, trying to get companies to adopt zero waste policies.

    Regarding meditation, an additional benefit to those mentioned is greater awareness of experience and life. In the first few seconds of meditating cycle awareness through your senses and relax. Relax more. Break the chain of thoughts by just saying to yourself ok “see that” and let go of the thought. As you let go of the chain of thoughts other awareness will seep in like wind in trees and…maybe even the awareness of totality!

    • Fred says:

      My wife points out that there is a alternative to flossing, a water pick with periogen powder.

      • jody deschenes says:

        thx, i’ve checked into it and am going to ask my friend who’s a hygienist what she thinks (:

  7. Linda says:

    Hi Darya,

    I noticed personally (after much trial and error and reflection) that for me to do any habit consistently, I have to have more love and joy for the action itself regardless of the desired outcome/goal. The action itself is the reward, this is important because anytime you are tired, stressed, feeling hopeless, you will forget what the reward is, you won’t get that far.

    my two cents 😀 love your blog.

  8. Lauren says:

    This a great post from /r/fitness about how meditation is actually a lot like weight training.

    I don’t even weight train but this routine got me meditating every morning 5 days a week for 3 months prior to my wedding. It helped that a while back I did a super beginner meditative yoga class during lunch hour at work so I was a little familiar with the body scan portion of the routine. I think the reason the yoga class helped was because there was an instructor guiding me.

    Sometimes it’s just easier to learn something with a teach rather than on your own. Now that I think about it, the idea of an instructor could help with habits like flossing as well… not just more complex things like meditation and exercise. ie…You had a friend instruct you about a good flossing tool. The right insight can make all the difference.

  9. Tracy says:

    Thanks for your blog! I’m a long-time reader. Here’s what got me flossing every day: I heard a dentist interviewed on the radio, and he said it is better hygiene-wise to floss before brushing. So I tried it and found that the floss-first order also has a psychological benefit. If I floss first, I still feel like I need to clean my mouth by brushing, so I floss AND brush. But if I brush first, I feel perfectly clean afterward and no longer feel inspired to floss. So flossing first is what gets me to floss at all.

    • Judith says:

      I have to agree with Darya that flossing is disgusting and flossing before you brush might be even worse. I use the single use picks and floss in the car where I don’t fling plaque all over the mirror (yuck). Am working on trying a water pik.

  10. Jona says:

    Hi Darya,

    (Full Disclosure: Oral Care Enthusiast Here!)

    Great Post! As if you were speaking directly to me. I don’t usually chime in but with the great article and the insightful comments I felt compelled.
    It’s interesting how we can become motivated when we remove the barriers and focus on the rewards (especially if they’re little ones at first).
    And because I’m currently on a mission of oral health awareness, I have to say it felt validating to read all the comments. I love “flossing” stories”.
    Kudos to you Darya for crushing your “flossing” barrier. Stick to the stick, and feel the success of clean and healthy.
    Fred thanks for helping overcome the waste barrier. “Trading gum care for a false cause,” I might have to quote you on that one.
    And Lauren, I agree with your “insight on instruction” and I’m on it.
    Interesting tidbit…I’ve been in oral care for over 30 years and not once has anybody asked me “what is the correct way to floss?” I get it, not something people think needs explanation. I even searched the web to see what was out there for videos, I was amazed that most were not completely correct.
    So, given the fact that nobody is going to ask in person I’ve decided to take it online. Not so “in your face,” this way. Thanks for the inspiration. I hope I can have fun inspiring others.
    So glad I found your blog. Love it.

  11. Maria says:

    Hi Darya,
    Great post! I really agree with you. I am also trying to include meditation in my daily routine but it is not that easy because sometimes I think that I am doing something wrong and I do not see its benefits immediatly, or I have not that much time for it. However, I never thought on focusing more on rewards. I should keep more in mind what the benefits of meditating are. Thanks! Love your blog!

  12. John Fawkes says:

    Great step by step process here. One thing I would add is, you can make it enjoyable by giving yourself an intangible reward- even just celebrating the fact that you did the habit can slowly cause you to link it with a sense of pride or accomplishment. Hell, maybe go full out and do an end zone dance after every time you do the habit.

  13. Kate says:

    Really love this article! Some really good tips and ideas thanks.

  14. Its so hard to start a habit especially if I am dreading the first days leading up to the success of my goal. Thanks for the tip. 🙂

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