The Thing Stopping You From Building Better Habits

April 30, 2023

Lately, I’ve built two new habits.

One is a productivity and personal development classic: each morning I journal, do a short gratitude practice, and do some affirmations. Very standard. The other new habit is less common in productivity books and YouTube videos: it is to complain less.

This second sort of habit is more difficult to build than the classic ones of meditating, going to the gym, journaling, and so on. That’s because it is a habit of the mind, rather than a physical habit.

Some background. I’ve long been a complainy person. The most flattering way to interpret this longstanding practice is to say that I have high expectations not just of myself but of others. In the past, when others didn’t meet my expectations, I complained and I judged them.

In fact, one time in high school, I wanted to join an organization called the “Initiative for Peace”. This organization trained young people to go to conflict zones (at the time, to Kashmir) to mediate discussions between people of different backgrounds. During an early meeting, my physics teacher, who is a wonderfully gentle Indian man, kindly suggested that this organization was not for me. You see, I had the propensity to publicly call discussions that slowed down our group meetings stupid. I had been judging and complaining, rather than understanding and showing compassion—which was the whole point!

So how did I manage to complain less?

In recent years, the most popular framework for habit-building has been James Clear’s, popularized in his book Atomic Habits. The gist of it is that, to form a new habit, you want to make it obvious, easy, attractive, and satisfying. And you adopt a new identity: you become the kind of person who does this thing.

This approach is a great start, but it’s not enough. You also need a compelling reason to build the new habit. If your attitude is, “I should meditate because it’s good for me”, I’m not putting my money on you attaining nirvana anytime soon.

Complaining less had been one of my goals for years, but I didn’t actually manage to until I realized just how much energy it sapped and how much it was holding me back. I realized that only when I met other people who rarely complained and, as a result, were incredibly pleasant to be around. I reasoned that if I wanted people to love being around me, I needed to stop complaining, too. Once I started to pay attention to this dynamic, I had a compelling reason—and change came.

Think about the habits you’d like to build, but haven’t been able to. What’s your compelling reason to adopt this habit? If you don’t have one, you need to find one first—and you can’t do that from your couch. Strong enough reasons hit you when you’re out in the world. If you do have such a strong reason, it’s a matter of making it more salient, of remembering it. And that’s easy—you know how to do that.

Good luck!

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