Earlier this year, fueled by a trip down the rabbit hole that is Pinterest’s bullet journaling suggestions, I found a new way to make a habit of cleaning my house: habit tracking.
I set up my new habit tracker like a game board, with each of my daily housekeeping chores shaped like a different Tetris piece. Each night, I drew and colored in each piece corresponding to all of the cleaning tasks I’d taken care of that day. After coloring in my board every night for five weeks, I was absolutely certain that this time I would finally achieve my goal of having an effortlessly and continuously clean house.
I was doing everything right according to habit research. I’d created a game to give myself extrinsic motivation until the new habit took over. Repeating that habit every night for weeks meant I was well on my way to my goal.
Unfortunately, I’m currently sitting in a house that’s a mess, and I haven’t updated my board since March.
It turns out that reaching a goal can be incredibly difficult even if you set yourself up for success by creating a new habit. That’s because of something called “habit boredom,” which is the weakening of your positive emotional response to an action once it becomes habitual.
Here’s what you need to know about how habit boredom can create setbacks with your goals, just when you think you’re finally on your way to reaching them.
Understanding habit boredom
Establishing good habits has long been touted as a way to reach your goals. After all, researchers have found that about 40 percent of your daily activities are performed habitually. Creating beneficial habits — like putting things away, making a bag lunch to take to work each day, and drinking a glass of water before each meal — can ensure that your actions are working toward your goals of a cleaner house, better finances, and improved health.
The problem is that intentionally creating a new and beneficial habit means you have an emotional response to it. For instance, you may feel proud of yourself when you begin your habit of packing a lunch each day. Look at you, starting a new money-saving habit! You can puff out your chest with pride as you calculate how much you’re saving with each homemade sandwich.
But that emotional response is not going to be quite as strong on day 17. That’s because the process of creating a habit also numbs your emotional response to that habit. In other words, as the habit takes over, you’re more likely to feel bored by it, since it’s no longer novel.
By that point, throwing together some turkey and cheese on wheat is no longer something to be proud of — it’s just Tuesday. And when your coworkers ask if you want to check out the new taco truck, the fact that you no longer have a strong emotional connection to your lunch-making habit means it’ll be easy to let your poor sandwich get soggy in the refrigerator while you enjoy some tacos.
Combatting habit boredom
Part of the problem with habit boredom is the fact that you may not realize that’s why you’re abandoning your newly-formed habit. It may seem rational to just skip your new routine one time because you’re tired, hungry, busy, or otherwise unable to let the habitual action take over.
However, habit boredom means you’re resistant to making your usual brown bag lunch the next day, too. And the one after that.
There are a couple of ways to keep habit boredom from wrecking all your progress, however.
Fall in love with the boredom
Habit and productivity expert James Clear writes in his book Atomic Habits that truly elite goal-setters find a way to enjoy the boredom of their habits. If the only path to become an Olympic athlete is to spend each day doing boring, repetitive athletic exercises, then those individuals who are capable of finding ways to enjoy the boredom have a leg up over those who feel like doing yet another set is about as interesting as watching paint dry.
So how do you go about falling in love with boredom?
- Pair your boring habit with something novel. Adding a fun motivator to your new habit can help you keep going with a habit that has lost its sheen. For instance, if you’re trying to keep your brown bag lunch habit going, you could use fun and colorful food storage, start cutting your sandwiches into shapes, or even experiment with recipes and snacks you’ve always wanted to try.
- Partner with a friend. You probably already know that exercise is more fun with a buddy. So is any other boring, repetitive habit. If you’re trying to establish a money-saving habit, partner up with a friend who is also trying to start a new habit. Holding each other accountable can help you both stay on track when habit boredom strikes.
Embrace the process orientation
We generally establish new habits because we have a goal in mind. The problem is that habit boredom can make us feel like we’ve failed if the boredom strikes before we’ve reached the goal.
When you’re focused solely on a goal, whether that goal is a cleaner house, better finances, or improved health, you often focus on the question, “Can I do this?” rather than “How do I do this?” The first question assumes that failure is an option. The second assumes that you will succeed and prompts you to figure out your process for doing so.
That’s why the process orientation, which focuses on how to do something, is more likely to lead to success. The guiding principle of process orientation is the mantra “there are no failures, only ineffective solutions.”
If your habit boredom leads you to abandoning your new habit, there’s no need to feel like you’re never going to reach your goal. You just need to tweak your solution to see if it’ll better help you reach it. When you’re open to asking yourself why something didn’t work, you’re more likely to find a solution that will work rather than simply abandon the habit and goal altogether. (See also: Habits Aren’t Boring — They’re the Secret to Happiness. Here’s Why.)
The double-edged sword of habits
Becoming a creature of habit can do a great deal to help you reach your goals if you’re intentional about your habits. But human beings are not machines that can be programmed and left to run.
We need to consistently tweak our habits, indulge our need for motivation and novelty, and recognize that reaching our goals is a process that may require a number of fits and starts.
Unfortunately for me, that means not even a beautifully rendered bullet journal Tetris board is sure to overcome the problem of habit boredom. (See also: The Surprisingly Easy Way to Change Your Habits and Your Life)