Make Your Habits Specific and Enjoyable3 min read

Effective habits are specific, time-bound, and ideally enjoyable. Effective habits tell you exactly what to do, when, and where.

Ineffective habits are vague. Here are some examples.

SMART GoalIneffective HabitEffective Habit
Lose 30 pounds in two monthsDo some exercise every morningDo 30 minutes of CrossFit at  7am every morning at the local gym
Write a 200-page book, by March, on the topic of leadership Write every night before going to bedWrite a thousand words every night right after dinner, at my home office
Improve our marriage satisfaction from 60% to 90% this yearTalk more often about our needs and wants in our relationship, and how we can improveHave a 20-minute relationship review every Friday night, using questions XYZ
Never again yell at my kidsCommit to being calmer and remember to breathe when I’m angryDo a five-minute conscious breathing session before family time, wherever I am
Spend no more than 30 minutes a day on YouTubeHave a sticky note reminding me to limit YouTube timeTurn on a countdown timer on my phone whenever I start watching YouTube

Effective habits are enjoyable, because that helps you keep focused on the process. It is hard to focus on the process if you hate the process, or don’t understand it.

We naturally procrastinate or get distracted when faced with processes we dislike or find meaningless. But if we enjoy a process, then discipline comes more easily; we’re more wholehearted; failures matter less; and we’re more likely to stick with it for the long-term and achieve our goals.  

So here are your options: either find a process you can enjoy, or learn to enjoy the process you need to go through. 

There are many different ways to achieve a goal. To get in shape, you can choose among hundreds of physical activities. If you hate running or lifting weights, you can try tennis, martial arts, or other sports. An objectively less effective option is still better if you enjoy it, because you’ll focus better, put in more effort, and stick to it longer.

If you can’t find a process that you naturally enjoy, then you may need to learn to enjoy the process that you’ve got. For example, if doing CrossFit daily is the best way to achieve your goal, you might as well learn to enjoy it. How? By adding rewards to that activity.

You can make an activity intrinsically rewarding through positive reappraisal: contemplate the qualities of that activity, focus on its rewards, and change your self-talk about it. 

If that is not possible, consider extrinsic rewards. One such type of reward is “temptation bundling”, or pairing indulgence with the activity, such as listening to music while walking on the treadmill. It’s not ideal, as it splits your attention and makes you less focused on the activity itself. It can be a last resort, as it’s still better than hating what you are doing. 

Another type of extrinsic reward if what I call temptation sequencing: when the reward comes after your goal-promoting activity. For example: “I will only watch my favorite TV show after cleaning up the kitchen” or “I will have a piece of chocolate only after I write 500 words”. 

In sum, try to pick an enjoyable habit. If that is not possible, decide how you will make it enjoyable—or at least tolerable.

This article is a summary of key ideas taken from Chapter 6 of Mindful Self-Discipline. To dive deeper, get the book or audiobook.


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