This is the dark side of having too many habits

May 23, 2024

This is the dark side of having too many habits

If you want to be happy in the long term, you may need to think more critically about your daily habits.

BY Stephanie Vozza

Habits are the building blocks of productivity. They help you move through your day effortlessly, accomplishing what you want to do without reinventing the wheel each time. Relying too heavily on habits, however, can come at a cost. 

“Habits and routines are very effective at creating comfort in an otherwise chaotic existence,” says Jodi Wellman, author of You Only Die Once: How to Make It to the End With No Regrets. “Getting very busy with ‘now’ helps us to avoid the stark reality that later that may not quite pan out the way we hoped.”

Initially, focusing on optimizing habits makes you feel good because you will be productive in the short term. And that is where some of the risk comes in, according to Wellman—in the medium and long term. 

“We want to be more efficient and effective and all the things that lead us to this promised land of happiness,” she explains. “But the routines that we succumb to end up routinizing our lives to the point where they become mundane and lack spontaneity.” 

How to Know It’s Time to Ditch Habits

Wellman recommends looking for the warning signs, such as a lingering sense that a different version of your life might be a little more interesting or exciting. 

“Sometimes that comes as a whisper,” she says. “We might compare ourselves to other people, which is usually a horrifying endeavor, especially on social media. But there can be a constructive effect to that. Maybe you see your friend going to a concert in the park, but you chose to stay home because it was laundry night.”

Another clue it’s time to ditch the habit is when people in your life suggest it. Sometimes we have blinders on and don’t realize that we aren’t truly living. “Maybe you have a friend who says, ‘Hey, you’ve got to shake things up a little bit,’” Wellman says. “That might be an indication that other people see the potential for more aliveness in you.”

A third indicator is a strong reliance on staying in your comfort zone. Wellman recommends getting inquisitive. Ask yourself, “Is this comfort adding to my life or detracting from it?” 

“Maybe not today, but if you extrapolate and imagine doing this thing seven months down the road, is this going to make you feel like you showed up and lived your life and had experiences that you’re proud of?” she asks. “Or is it going to make you feel a little bit regretful? Maybe you played it small?”

Questioning Your Habits

Ditching habits altogether would make your life unnecessarily complicated and disorderly, but too much structure and process can create a life reminiscent of the movie Groundhog Day. Wellman says there needs to be a continuum of how habits can exist. 

This is the dark side of having too many habits

“I’m not happy with simply finding the middle ground, because then we feel a little bit satisfied with ourselves and say, ‘I’ve got habits that work for me,’” she says. “When we feel like habits are working for us, it is our job to notice where they both serve us and stifle us. Anytime you have a habit, it is at risk of stifling you.” 

For example, Wellman suggests saying, “Habit of mine, I appreciate that you get me to the gym on Monday and Wednesday. But am I just going through the motions? What if I alter my routine? What if I took the training wheels off and try that interesting twist of the workout rather than just doing the same thing again and again?”

Novelty is a basic psychological need—one that we don’t pay enough attention to at the cost of trying to manage and feel good today. 

“We get a quick hit of dopamine when we manage our routine today,” Wellman says. “But we’re not looking at the bigger picture: Did I experience life this week? Did I feel alive in the last month? Did I feel like I had an interesting or riveting experience that sparked creativity and helped me be even more productive at work? It’s dulling the edges in our lives that robs us of vitality.”

Why It’s Important to Shake Things Up

While ditching habits can be uncomfortable because it forces you to change, the discombobulation you feel can be the precipice that leads to a widened life of vitality. “To me, that’s the sign of growth,” Wellman says. “That’s the sign of a life getting lived around here.”

A life of habits brings to mind author Robin Sharma’s quote: “Don’t live the same year 75 times and call it a life.” If you maintain your habit status quo, you might look back on your life and realize you were a highly functioning zombie stuck in autopilot. 

“You may end up with that feeling like you missed out on a whole lot of interesting opportunities that only novelty and spontaneity can bring— that you overlooked the serendipitous moments, which in an ironic way can make you even more productive,” Wellman says. “The infusion of novelty is the answer. One of the common regrets people have when they get near the end of life is, ‘Did I participate in my life enough?’”

 

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Stephanie Vozza is a freelance writer who covers productivity, careers, and leadership. She’s written for Fast Company since 2014 and has penned nearly 1,000 articles for the site’s Work Life vertical 


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