The #1 Reason Why You Can’t Seem to Form Good Habits

Hint: It has less to do with you than you think

I still remember distinctly, the first time I uploaded a video on Youtube — it was early in the morning, perhaps even 4 or 5AM. I probably should’ve waited, but having already spent an entire week on the video, I was anxious to upload straight away. My only concern, was that nobody would like it — which, turned out to be a fear unfounded, since not a single person had even watched it.

Needless to say, I became discouraged and quit shortly after.

If you’re expecting this post to be some kind of success story of how I grew my Youtube channel from zero to a million or preach why it’s important to be persistent, it isn’t; I’ve yet to accomplish anything that resembles that sort of success, not to mention, there’s probably enough generic success advice out there that already exists. If anything, this post is more self-reflective, as a way for me to expand on thoughts I have on why it’s so difficult to rid ourselves of bad habits and establish good ones.

Year after year, I’ve tried again and again to remain consistent in building better habits, but still inadvertently always end up being discouraged some way or another and eventually quitting again.

Going to the gym and putting in the effort but realizing changes aren’t happening.
Attempting to eat healthier but constantly feeling hungry despite a lack of changes.
Learning photography but realizing my photos still suck, even after hundreds of photos taken.

In all of those cases, I quit once when I realized I wasn’t getting the results I wanted — even though I knew, as well as anybody could, that changes take time.

So was it simply a lack of patience of my part, a lack of willpower, or was there something deeper at hand: What if, it was the very culture I grew up in that had influenced me to quit?

It makes sense if you think about it, because our entire culture thrives on instant gratification and short-term rewards.

As kids, we’re taught that grades matter the most — parents and teachers alike are quick to reprimand or praise depending on the grades we get.
As adults, we’re taught that money matters the most — how you’re viewed in the world, our status, depends on the amount of money we make.

But what we’re not taught are that having good grades and making good money is simply a means to an end, to living a happier and more fulfilled life.

What we focus on are short-term rewards — rewards we can visualize or obtain immediately — does it matter that we can’t afford the phone we want? No, because that’s what the 0% APR for the first six months are for. Does it matter that we already have more than enough food in the pantry? No, because it’s 20% off or Buy 1 Get 1 Free. There’s a reason why 40% of all the food produced in the U.S. is uneaten and why the average American has about $38,000 in debt, excluding home mortgages.

Our entire culture thrives on instant gratification and short-term rewards — the photos we upload to Instagram, the status updates we post on Facebook, the tweets we send — we do, because we expect it to be liked, shared, commented on and retweeted. Otherwise what would have been the point of social media? Can you imagine a network where you’re the only one actively posting and responding — it wouldn’t be much fun would it?

All of which is to say, that because we’re so used to expecting rewards in the short-term, we have difficulties building the better habits we want, because those benefits are only obvious after weeks and months, if not years of consistent effort.

The crazy part is, we’re also biologically wired to aspire for short-term rewards — it’s why marketing in this day and age works as well as it does because we actually feel good about eating that donut, drinking that coffee, smoking that cigarette. The chemical, Dopamine, that gets released in our brain and makes us feel good when we eat tasty foods is the exact same one that also makes us feel good when we gamble, shop or have sex. Is it really a surprise then, why it’s so much easier to develop bad habits than good ones?

The most difficult thing when it comes to enforcing changes is actually realizing the impact of those changes in the long-term despite how incrementally small they are.

Just as you won’t notice any immediate changes to your body when you first start working out, you’re not going to notice any changes when you eat a donut — until you eat it again and again and gain weight as a result.

Changes almost always happen incrementally — one of the best examples of it is how Simon Sinek talks about love being developed: When you first meet your significant other, there may be attraction, but there’s no love. Love is only developed incrementally through time, through hundreds of seemingly small actions — asking about her day, leaving her messages here and there, making her dinner, watching a movie together or talking walks through the park. It’s as the adage says: it’s always the little things that matter most in a relationship. While love may not be there at the start, it establishes incrementally.

In the exact same way, that’s how some of our our unrealized bad habits come to be.

The average American works 44 hours a week (8.8 hours a day), because while we might’ve already left work, we haven’t stopped working yet — even when we’re home. Most of us still reply to our emails, answer calls on our phone, add final touches to our projects because it only takes an extra 15 minutes and it’s what pays the bills.

Except eventually, those 15 minutes might become an extra 30, an extra 60, or perhaps even double or triple that time. And while we may not realize the consequences of such time spent because those changes are so incremental, one day it’ll catch up to us and that’s when we’ll ask ourselves what have we been doing the entire time.

Because 15 minutes a day is already enough to impact most relationships.
It’s always the little things that matter most — so whether or not you’re helping out with the dishes, tucking the kids into bed, setting up the bath, taking out the trash, talking to your significant other about her day — those 15 minutes could very well make a difference — since after all, the reason why the love developed in the first place was precisely because of those little things.

And the worst part is, for many of us who want to make that change, because we realize how badly our bad habits have affected us, we do so in the most dramatic way possible — through the vicious cycle of short-term rewards.

We’ll take the wife and kids on vacation, allow them to splurge as they wish, partaking in fancy dinners, clothes and toys — all to feel momentarily better for having neglected them in the first place, before coming home and spending even more time at work.

Because now that our lifestyle has expanded to include those luxuriously expensive vacations, our need to work more has ironically, increased. It then becomes an endless cycle in which we continue to chase only the rewards that can be measured in the short-term, when in fact all the things that actually matter — long-term happiness, fulfilment in life, strong relationships and responsible parenting — are the things that’ll actually take years in the long-term before we ever see a return on it.

Change doesn’t happen just one step at a time — it only happens one step at a time. The things that are worth doing will always take time. It’s as Theodore Roosevelt once said:

“Nothing in the world is worth having or worth doing unless it means effort, pain, difficulty… I have never in my life envied a human being who led an easy life. I have envied a great many people who led difficult lives and led them well.”

If our focus is to build better habits, should we really care about how much time it’ll take? Because so what if it takes us five years, before we can get our six-pack? At the end of those five years, when we have our six-pack, are we really going to be complaining?

Time will pass regardless, and if we’re not spending it towards a better self, what would we have been doing with that time instead?

What are your thoughts on the post?