Why Building Good Habits is Never Easy

If you’ve ever changed something about yourself you didn’t like, if you’ve ever started from ground zero and built a brand new healthy habit, then you know it’s hard work. Once you felt that this new behavior was a part of your life, you probably congratulated yourself, quite deservingly, and then looked ahead to the next habit you wanted to tackle. You might have thought that this next one should be a breeze, since you had all that experience and practice to draw from. Surprisingly, though, it seemed that developing the next habit was just as hard as the first one. It may have been so hard, in fact, that you gave up. Why is that?

There are a few reasons why changing behaviors and building good habits will always be difficult, and I’d like to use what I call the “Retaining Wall Principle” to illustrate those reasons. It’s an analogy that I am, unfortunately, very familiar with.

If you want to build a retaining wall, there are many steps you have to follow in order to end up with a wall that looks good and won’t fall down on top of you. First, you need to draw up a plan for the wall, deciding how long and how high it will be. From there, you have to calculate how many retaining wall blocks you’ll need, and this is not an easy thing to do! You might think you can just multiply the length of the wall by height, then divide square footage by the dimensions of your blocks, but if you forget to calculate the foundational course – that first row of blocks that is actually laid almost entirely below-ground – then your estimate will be way off.

After you’ve calculated for needed materials, you still can’t lay a single block until you’ve prepped the site. To do this you’ll need some tools – shovels, a pick-axe, a hand tamper. If it’s a big project, then you’ll probably want to save time and agony by renting machines – a small backhoe and a powered compactor, for example. You’ll need to learn how to use the tools and/or operate the machinery. Then you’ll spend hours laboring, getting the foundation for your wall perfectly square and level. The ground beneath the wall needs to be tightly compacted, so you’ll have to remove a few inches of earth and replace it with a type of gravel that can be pounded into a fairly hard surface. This same gravel will be used to back fill each course of block, so you’ve got another calculation to make: how many yards of gravel? You could spend hours just searching for the right equation or calculator to help you figure this out.

Finally, you’re ready to lay the foundational layer of blocks. Every single one will have to be perfectly leveled. You’ll need more tools for this – a level, a rubber mallet and don’t forget a good pair of work gloves! You’ll also need patience. The first time you do this, it takes forever, but you learn little tricks and you get better at “eyeballing” things, so that you become faster and more accurate as you go.

Once the foundational layer has been perfectly laid, progress really goes quickly. All you have to do is stack the blocks up course after course, backfilling as you go. Of course, this is still very hard work, so it doesn’t happen automatically. You have to work slowly and take lots of breaks, but eventually, you put the last stone into place – your wall is complete!

Let’s say that two months later you decide to build another retaining wall. This will be a breeze! After all, you already have the tools, you know how to make the calculations for the materials, and not too much time has passed, so you remember most of the tricks you picked up last time. As you work, you’re happy to find that things are going much more smoothly, there is less frustration and starting over and tearing out bad work and re-doing it. But it’s still taking you almost just as long. Why? Because digging ditches and perfectly placing sixty-pound cement blocks one by one is slow, arduous work! Habit change is just like that. Having the tools and the practice certainly gets you to the starting point a lot faster, but the work still has to be done.

Now, imagine that another element crops up – different circumstances. Say your second wall is in a different part of your yard where the soil is rocky or there are a lot of tree roots. These are new obstacles you didn’t encounter the first time, so you’ll need to find new tools to help you remove them. Remember that every habit is its own wall, with its own circumstances.

Now suppose that instead of waiting two months to build the second wall, you decide to do it the day after you finished the first one. You’re already tired from building that first wall! You’re sick of looking at retaining wall blocks and you didn’t even give yourself any time to sit back and admire your first wall. Skipping this recovery period is a bad idea. There’s a limit to your will-power reserve, and jumping right in to work on another habit is like trying to build a new wall with a sore back. Give yourself time to build your reserves back up, and don’t forget to take some time to just enjoy the great success of your first habit change. Doing so will build motivation, confidence and excitement for your next big project.

If you’re working on building positive new habits, I’d love to hear from you. But if you’re building a retaining wall, please call somebody else!

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