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5 Reasons Why Habits Don’t Work (And Why You Need Rituals Instead)

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One of the challenges with habits is making them sticky and keeping them going. We often get excited about starting a new habit but then fizzle out after a couple days.

Why is it so difficult to start and maintain a habit?

It’s not a matter of information. If you just needed more information, you’d have already done it.

We know that regular exercise is good for us. So why aren’t we doing this?

How many times have you read that waking up early can help boost your productivity? Why aren’t you doing this?

The answer to this mystery is not so obvious. In fact, it took me YEARS to figure out why I failed at habits.

If you met me a couple years ago, the habits I had was staying up late, waking up late, frantically heading to work and always feeling like I need to be working even after I came home.

I was the antithesis of what habits a person should have. No matter what I tried, the good habits never stuck with me for more than a couple days.

Then I figured it out why this is. The short summary: habits don’t work, but rituals do. I’ll share 5 reasons why.

1. Habits Are Not Specific Enough

One of the reasons we don’t get started on something is because it’s not specific enough.

What would you do if someone said to be confident?

What would you do if someone said to stop procrastinating?

What would you do if someone said to be positive?

Blegh. That’s just vague. We logically understand what they mean but then our brain goes “alright how do I actually do this?” and we freeze up. As a result, we don’t do anything and just move on.

It’s the same thing with habits. They are vague.

If you want to pick up the habit of meditation, what does that mean? What the heck is meditation anyway? Isn’t that woo-woo stuff? (It’s not but that’s what I always thought). Do I need to find a spiritual leader from India and fly him in to guide me through a session? Do I do this by myself or in a group setting?

What you need is specificity. That’s why rituals are more effective – they are specific.

When it’s vague, our default action is not to take any action. It’s too hard to get started. Which bring me to the next reason.

2. Habits Don’t Get You Started

One of the secrets to fighting procrastination is to make the first step so simple that it would be ridiculous to say no to.

Want to go running? Just tying your shoes should be the first step.

Want to pick up the habit of flossing? Only floss one tooth.

The challenge we have is that we tend to think too far in advance. When we want to exercise more, we think about the ripped body we want, the compliments we shall receive and all the extra energy we will have.

That’s all good grasshopper, but what’s step one?

This is where most people fall off and then never get started. It’s okay to think about the end result, as long as you know what step one is and that it’s so simple, you’d be stupid to reject it.

So when you want to try form a new habit, clarify the first step. That’s why rituals are so powerful and effective – they force you to clarify what the first step is (and step 2, 3 and so on) and make it easy to get started.

3. Habits Don’t Address Why You Need This

Do you remember that feeling when you’re excited and pumped to start a new habit?

That source of motivation is something you can bring up anytime you want. The problem is that we don’t know how to regain it when we want to. Motivation comes and goes. One day we have full fuel tank of it, other days we’re lucky we have one drop of it.

When we rely on motivation to get started and keep going, we’re setting ourselves up for failure and inconsistent results.

One trick that works to counter this is to figure out your why.

Why do you want to pick up this habit?

This is not an easy question to answer. Your first instinct is to give a superficial answer. Let’s take the exercise habit as an example.

Why do you want to have the habit of exercising?

Common gut responses include:

  • “I want to look good in the mirror”
  • “I want to fit in my old clothes again”
  • “I want to eat whatever I want and still look good”

Don’t get me wrong, these aren’t bad reasons. Heck, I sometimes tell myself these things in the mirror.

But they aren’t effective for maintaining habits. Otherwise you wouldn’t have had troubles with this habit (or any other habit).

What you need is the real reason that is one or two layers deeper. For example, the reason I exercise regularly is because I don’t want to end up like my grandparents who always complain about joint pains, they can’t move around and they live in pain every day where they can’t enjoy their last part of their lives. I’ve witnessed firsthand how terrible this situation is and that’s not what I want.

That’s my why for my exercise habit. This can be different for yours. Some answers I’ve heard from private clients include things like:

  • “I want to have energy to be around for my kids when they grow up so I can be a good parent. My parents were never around because they worked so hard that they were always tired by the time they had any time for me. I don’t want that for my kids.”
  • “I feel strong when I exercise. It makes me feel in touch with my masculine identity knowing that I can protect my family and loves ones.”

Whatever your why is for your habit, go beyond the superficial reasons. Write it down and pull it up whenever you don’t feel like keeping up your habit – it’ll fire you back up (if you picked the right WHY).

Every ritual has this naturally built in and it’s extremely effective. It’s one of the secret sauces that make rituals work.

4. Habits Aren’t Sticky

It’s assumed that we know how to keep a habit going. Just like we are supposed to know how to maintain our overwhelming email inboxes and all this information overload.

But no one has ever showed us how to deal with this. It’s not part of our education system. Especially when it comes to building habits.

Everyone makes it sound easy to just walk more, wake up earlier and meditate.

What they don’t tell you is how to get started, how to keep it going and most of all how to fit it in your schedule without disrupting the rest of your life. We all have people to take care of, bills to pay, dishes to wash and a billion other things to do.

Integrating a new habit into your life is not easy. Let alone keeping it going while a lot of other things might seem more important. When everything seems like a priority, that’s a red flag.

And don’t get me even started on how much energy we have day to day and how motivated we are. They can fluctuate a lot. Without a solid game plan and system, maintaining habits can be a second full-time job.

Do you want another full-time job? Yeah…me neither.

If you want habits to be “set it and forget it”, you need to turn it into a ritual that is powered by a system. Which raises the next idea…

5. There’s no Step by Step System

To increase your chances of taking action, there are 3 things that need to be in place:

1. You need to have desire to do it (your why)
2. A first step that is simple to do
3. A step by step system that is proven to work and easy to follow

Once all 3 are in place, you have a formula for success. An analogy I like to use is when you first cook for your boyfriend/girlfriend. Regardless what you cook, you’re excited about it and you’ll follow a recipe that has step by step instructions for how to cook.

What if there was such a thing for forming rituals?

Wouldn’t it be nice if there was a fool-proof step by step system that showed you exactly how to “set it and forget it” so it runs on autopilot?

We’ve got this worked out and we’re excited to reveal this system to you on a free webinar. It’s what we’ve been using to install rituals that allow us to wake up early, exercise regularly, eat our frogs every day and more – without wasting time maintaining them. It also includes proven strategies that make it ridiculously easy to regain any ritual where you might have slipped up.

Do you want to see our Rituals System? We have a free workshop that shows you how you can build good habitsĀ and stick to them with our 4-Step Rituals System. Click here to register for the next available workshop – it’s completely free.

rituals webinar


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Posted by jay dam  | August 24, 2017 at 10:56AM | Reply

i agree with you that habit is hard to form.
but the reason i found for why we can’t stick to new habit is because the punishment/reward system isn’t setup right to form a new habit.

Posted by Joed Lopez  | March 5, 2015 at 12:19AM | Reply

Seriously felt like this was written just for me. Thanks again for the inspiration plus the concrete steps. Just what I needed.

Posted by Yasin Najib  | February 23, 2015 at 7:21AM | Reply

Benevolent article. Articulated well too.
Thank you sir, you rock.

Posted by Danii Turnbull  | February 23, 2015 at 4:20AM | Reply

Enjoyed your post Thanh. Point 3 is really valid and often left out of the habit creation process. Addressing the “why” when setting out to do anything on a regular basis is a really important step to assisting with continued action. That “woo-woo” meditation stuff (lol) was written down on my daily to-do list for several years before I finally worked out why I really needed to do it and how to make it a part of my daily ritual. Still can’t believe I would write it down each day and do it only once or twice a month.

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