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Can a Stunt Project Help to Build Your Habits? Sometimes, But Be Careful.

Posted Jul 21 2014 8:45pm

ShelfPhyllisRose As I’ve mentioned many times before, I’m hard at work on Better Than Before , a book about how we make and break habits. Sign up here to be notified when it goes on sale.

I’ve noticed an issue that often arises when people are trying to change a habit.

When people want to get into a habit, they often set themselves a juicy goal and pursue that goal with special intensity. A person who wants to start exercising decides to train for the marathon. A person who wants to eat more healthfully decides give up sugar for a month. A person who wants to start writing regularly decides to do NaNoWriMo .

This approach can be counter-productive, however, because of the hidden danger of finish lines .

Setting a finish line does indeed help people reach a goal, but although it’s widely assumed to help habit-formation, the reward of hitting a specific goal actually can undermine habits.

A finish line marks a stopping point, and once we stop, we must start over, and starting over is harder than starting.

The more dramatic the goal, the more decisive the end—and the more effort required to start over. By providing a specific goal, a temporary motivation, and requiring a new “start” once reached, hitting a milestone may interfere with habit-formation.

However, it’s also true that a period of special, intense effort, or striving toward an exciting goal, sometimes does help people change a habit. It’s a Secret of Adulthood : The opposite of a profound truth is also true.

For some people, they run the marathon, and they never run again. For other people, the short-term habit does indeed help to fire up the long-term habit. But don’t count on it! Decide what your habit will be, going forward.

One key is to have a plan for what happens after the finish line is crossed. What are you doing a week after the marathon? How do you eat when the sugar-free month is up? You have to make a plan.

I thought of this when I read Phyllis Rose’s The Shelf: From LEQ to LES: Adventures in Extreme Reading .  She decided to read every book in a somewhat randomly chosen shelf of fiction, from LEQ to LES, at her local library, the New York Society Library.

This undertaking had particular appeal to me. First, as I write about in Better Than Before , several of the habits that I try to form as part of my habits project are related to reading more. Reading is my playground and my cubicle, and I want to read more. Rose’s kind of extreme reading is the kind of thing I’d like to do (I’ve been playing with the idea of spending six months only re-reading, for example).

Second, like Rose, I’m a member of the New York Society Library; it’s one of the joys of my life. I work there on my laptop, and I check out books regularly. In fact, I’m writing this post while I’m sitting in the study room, and I just took  break to take a photo of Phyllis Rose’s shelf. See above–her particular shelf is the second from the top.

Third, I like any experiment in living — lifehacking stunts of all kinds. My book The Happiness Project is, of course, was an experiment of this sort. (Did I ever mention that The Happiness Project was on the bestseller list for more than two years? Oh right, maybe I did.)

Sometimes, it can seem a bit artificial to do a “stunt,” such as a boot-camp , or a fast like a technology fast, or month of ____, but it can be useful — as long as we remember the danger of the finish line.

That period of intensity should help build momentum and shape a habit, not give us a feeling of being “done.” I can imagine that doing a reading exercise, of the sort undertaken by Rose, would help remind me of how much I love to read and how much time I can make available for reading, if I set my mind to it. And shape my habits accordingly.

How about you? Have you ever done a stunt habit-formation exercise — or done a boot-camp, technology cleanse, given up coffee for a month, etc? Did it shape your habits permanently, or not?

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