Is the importance of habits overrated? Here are 5 reasons you might want to rethink your daily habits

There’s no question that building strong daily habits can improve your productivity. However, some people take this to mean that an ideal day is just one long string of “habit stacks.”

Unfortunately, that’s not the case.

In fact, there are many situations where maintaining daily habits—even when seemingly positive—has serious downsides. 

Instead of going into autopilot, here are 5 reasons to rethink daily habits as the only route to peak performance. 

Alice Boyes, PhD is a former clinical psychologist turned writer. She is the author of The Healthy Mind Toolkit and The Anxiety Toolkit.

1. Focusing on habit “streaks” can lead to missed opportunities

Habits help you stick to “good” behaviors by reducing the self-control you need to keep up with them.

For example, let’s say you’ve built a habit of studying in the same place at the same time every day. Then, one day, a friend invites you to a party at that same time. Your habit not only makes it easier to say no but also makes it easier to ignore any FOMO you might feel.

This is the beauty of habits and what makes them a powerful tool for productivity and self-regulation.

However, let’s imagine a slightly different scenario.

Let’s say you’re learning to code and are taking a similar “don’t break the chain” approach. But then a friend texts you to say that his college roommate is in town. They used to work for a company you’re trying to get a foot in the door with.

There’s no promise they can help. But do you want to meet up anyway? 

In this case, the potential gain from going out could outweigh the incremental gain of sticking to the habit. But if you’ve maintained a long streak, you might overweight the importance of keeping it up.

How to not just focus on habit streaks

Don’t use motivational techniques that can lead to psychological inflexibility (like “don’t break the chain.”) Instead use motivations like observing how ↑ habit consistency > ↓ self-control needed to maintain a consistent behavior.

Adding some flexibility will also help you not be the person who quits as soon as they “break the chain”. For example, the person who trains for a marathon, nails it, and then never runs again. 

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2. A ‘to-do’ that requires daily effort might not be optimized

When it comes to certain habits—such as brushing your teeth—the “don’t break the chain” method seems to make sense.

And while I wouldn’t advocate for skipping out on oral hygiene, the fact that everyone on the planet spends a few minutes each day brushing their teeth isn’t really optimal. Instead, a better solution would be something that could protect teeth for longer than a day. 

How to audit and optimize your daily “to-dos” 

If you have a “to-do” that requires daily effort, can you restructure it to not require daily attention?

For instance, if you have a daily meeting with employees, could you write them a checklist instead? Think about your own day. There are probably many situations where you overlook a more optimal solution in favor of keeping up with your habit.

3. Habits often have a “usefulness lifespan” because people grow

Any behavior you do involves an opportunity cost. And as your skills and opportunities grow, that opportunity cost is likely to change. For example, as my skills for making money have grown, what is worth doing has changed.

Since time and energy are limited resources, diligently keeping up moderately productive habits and routines leave less room for others.

If you focus too much on consistently following through on old habits, you’ll also have less time and mental space to explore new, better options. 

How to balance personal growth and habits

The definition of habits is that they’re behaviors we do automatically. But when you get comfortable in a routine, it’s easy to continue being psychologically pulled towards moderately productive habits you’ve outgrown. 

To get out of this cycle, pay attention to how you spend your time.

For example, you could use a tool like RescueTime to track your daily activities and check for automatic behaviors that, while moderately productive, are no longer the best use of your time.

Editor’s note: Viewing the RescueTime Category and Sub-Category reports By Day is a great way to identify tasks that you do automatically but might not be the best use of time anymore.

Looking at a Monthly report can show long-term patterns. For example, I have a habit of checking the news daily, but even more so later in the week.

RescueTime is the ultimate tool for understanding and optimizing your time and habits each day. Try it for free today!

4. Strictly following your habits can lead to burnout (or a lack of growth)

There’s a famous story about Jerry Seinfeld where he explains that he built his daily writing habit by marking an X each day on his calendar to keep him motivated to not break the chain.

Yet while practicing writing is one route to becoming a better writer, it’s not the only factor. To be creative and innovative, you often need to take a break from a daily activity.

The night you take off from a habit and do something new might lead to a lightbulb idea. What looks like procrastination can be part of the creative process.

Even worse, making yourself do something every day can often be a recipe for burnout, a narrow perspective (tunnel vision), or just diminishing enjoyment. 

How to design your habits to be resilient enough to withstand breaks

The key here is to build habits that don’t rely on rigid daily consistency.

To start, identify what your existing resilient habits are. These are the habits you can pick up after a break without feelings of burden, dread, or excessive effort.

Resilient habits often have one or more of these characteristics: 

  • Psychologically reward you at the time you do them (for example, if exercising immediately lifts your mood) 
  • Are very long-term (spanning decades)
  • Involve external accountability (e.g., your job requirements)
  • You have a habit mechanism for resuming after a break. For example, I have a habit of going to an Asian supermarket within a few days after an intense work period, which helps me maintain a habit of cooking my own curries instead of getting takeout). 

Lastly, resilient habits are also those where you have a strong emotional connection to the function (the purpose of what you do) but some flexibility in the form (how you do it). For example, if your habit is to exercise but you’re able to easily switch between the gym, walks, or yoga. 

The paradox is that in the short- and medium-term, the research indicates it’s easier to form habits with extreme consistency in terms of the form and timing/context of that habit (when, where, and what you do).

For very long-term habits, however, my suspicion is that more variability in the form and trigger/context might make them more resilient. For example, you won’t give up your exercise routine just because you’re unable to run.

5. Creativity and innovative thinking relies on being flexible 

It’s common productivity advice to match your work schedule to your circadian rhythm (or daily productivity curve). For example, protecting your typical periods of peak concentration for focused work. 

However, too much consistency in your daily schedule can have a downside.  

Some of my best writing has been done when I’ve been in a very disciplined state. While other pieces have been done when I’m feeling fragile or when I’ve been tired and a bit disinhibited. (I don’t publish writing in that state but I will write drafts). 

If you follow a habit very strictly, there’s a good chance you’ll be doing that activity in the same type of mental state instead of coming at it from a different angle.

How to break up your daily habits (from time to time)

If you always reserve your most focused time for a certain type of work then perhaps try switching it. With every good general principle, there’s often a case for sometimes doing the opposite.

For instance, doing high-level strategy work when you’re tired. Or, doing relationship-building activities when you’re focused (if your usual pattern is to do the reverse).

If you tend to focus mostly on optimizing your peak-focus periods, try looking at your Rescuetime data around distracting time to see when your self-control tends to be very low. These can be periods when having a strong, consistent habit might help you most. 

My Distracting Time By Time of Day report shows peaks in distraction around 1pm.

For example, if you always mentally peace-out at 1pm on Friday afternoons, then having a strong habit of doing filing every week at that time is likely to make it easier to maintain productivity without needing self-control you don’t have at that time.

Habits are a good tool. But every system needs to be examined. 

There’s no denying that habits are a useful type of system. But emphasizing habits as a route to success sometimes gets misinterpreted in ways that can lead to rigidity and compulsively following “good” habits. 

Optimizing your habits isn’t only about attaining habit consistency, it’s also about knowing how to minimize any downsides of that habit consistency.

The importance of habits isn’t overrated but extreme consistency in any complex habit (beyond the likes of teeth brushing) often isn’t desirable.

Need help building better habits? RescueTime keeps you accountable to your goals and aware of where your time is going. Try it for free today!

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