You Pay For Bad Habits Later, You Pay For Good Habits Now

It’s the beginning of the year, so working on good habits and shedding bad ones are on everybody’s minds. It should be simple, but it’s not. Whether we’re helping clients with their habits or working on our own, we need to be able to tell the good from the bad to keep our focus in the right place. A good rule of thumb, courtesy of habit guru James Clear, is to look for when we pay for our habits.* Think about this:

You pay for a bad habit in the future. Eating a donut today tastes great but 20 years of donuts won’t be so kind to your health.

You pay for a good habit today. Working out means sweating and struggling today in exchange for better health later on.

Payment, in both of these examples, comes in the form of resistance. Payment means we have to cough something up. It might be our health down the road when we regret all the donuts, or our comfort today when we hit the gym even though we just want to stay in bed. The problem is our brains aren’t wired to understand these costs. Our default setting is cheap and weak (speaking from experience. Boston Cream, I see you).

In order to check our perspective, we want to ask: A. What’s the long-term impact of a repeated short-term behavior,
B. What’s the short-term path of least resistance that puts us on the long-term track, and,
C. How can we engineer the short-term setup to put us on a good long-term trajectory?

Professionally, we want to be extra careful about how we communicate the incentives, the risks, and the rewards of a habit. Breaking habits apart is dissecting a story someone has either told themselves a million times or is about to tell themselves for the first time. Thinking in these terms can be a really helpful framework to apply.

When we think of our jobs as habit influencers, we also move our focus to helping people find the path of least resistance towards the most attractive future incentives. We can help people reshape their identity. Sub in your own variables, but the narrative shift from “A donut a day,” to “I’m an apple in the morning person” makes all the difference.

Good habits are crucial to success. They’re how progress compounds, and we really don’t want negative compounding. Knowing where, when, and why we pay can help us get on and stay on the right track. Paying now and investing for later beats taking the shortcut now and paying for it later every time.

*See his book “Atomic Habits,” see this post “The Three Layers Of Habit” inspired by his work), and/or check out this appearance on the Capital Allocators Podcast with Ted Seides (it’s a very practical conversation).

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