The Broccoli Point: Why Creating Habits Is Hard
Read the below with this caveat in mind: Constant learning and self-improvement can and must be done for great life results.
It’s a wonderful idea to try to find a set of systems and principles that “work better” for big swaths of your life. Better habits, better mental tendencies, better methods of inquiry, and so on. We’re strong advocates of this approach, believing that good thinking and good decision making can be learned the same as a good golf swing can: Through practice and instruction.
The problem with the search for self-improvement methods, including the kind of multidisciplinary thinking we espouse, is that many, perhaps most of them, are a snare and a delusion for most people. And there’s a simple reason why: They won’t actually do it.
Think about it. Isn’t that the most common result? That you don’t do it?
For example, we heard from many people after we wrote a piece late last year on Reading 25 Pages a Day, a little practice that we think would benefit almost anyone in creating a very desirable reading habit.
What we suspect, though, is that even of the subset of people who felt so strongly about the idea that they contacted us, only a minority of them followed through and maintained to the habit to this day, ten months later.
Why is that? A huge part of it is Homeostasis: The basic self-regulating feedback loops that keep us repeating the same habits over and over. The predictable forces that keep us from changing ourselves, just as they keep us from changing organizations. (Or changing any self-regulating system.)
Most newly proposed systems or habits (mental or physical) follow a basic formula whereby a solution is proposed with no broccoli needing to be eaten. Lose weight, no problem! Get rich, no problem! Train your brain in 30 days, no problem!
After giving such a tempting system a shot, most people realize that either the proposed solution contains much broccoli indeed, or that it doesn’t work at all.
With regards to the 25-pages a day reading “system” we outlined, we were careful not to make a “no broccoli” promise: All we said was that reading 25 pages per day was a habit that almost anyone could form, and that it would lead them far. But you still have to do all the reading.
You have to do the thing. That’s the part where everyone falls away.
In other words: The “failure point” with any new system; any method of improvement; any proposed solution to a life problem or an organization problem, is when the homeostatic regulation kicks in, when we realize some part of it will be hard, new, or unnatural.
Even a really well-designed system, of which there are many, can only chop the broccoli into little pieces and sneak it into your mac-and-cheese.
For example, let’s say you proposed to take our advice but started with 10 pages a day. Then 20 pages every day. Then 25 pages every other day. Then, finally, the full 25 page a day habit. Great! You’ve eased yourself in. But will you keep the habit when it’s inconvenient to do so?
Congratulations, you’ve reached the broccoli point, the part where most people tuck and roll; when faced with a plate of broccoli day after day, they go back to eating junk.
This happens when the habit isn’t truly formed yet. We think we’re there, but we’re really not — we’ve just been fooled by our sensory apparatus.
So here’s a test to see if the habit is real or imagined: When you’re really “there,” going back feels uncomfortable, it feels like cutting off your hands. In other words, you should be preferring the broccoli.
One final point: When you’re evaluating a proposed improvement to your life or to your organization, you must figure out when and where the broccoli will get eaten, and understand that you will have to sacrifice something (even if it’s just comfort) to get what you want. And if anyone ever promises you “no broccoli,” it’s probably a sham.
There really is no free lunch. Anything really worth doing is probably hard work, and will absolutely require you to do things you don’t currently do, which will feel uncomfortable for a while. This is a “hard truth” we must all face. If it was easy, everyone would already be doing it.