July 31, 2018

Wake up, eat Pop-Tart, stuff tent into pack, walk. It's a typical routine for hikers along the Pacific Crest Trail as they attempt to travel the 2,650 miles from Mexico to Canada. And we can learn a thing or two from them about the power—and perils—of habits.

Hikers who set out on the trail are especially vulnerable to quitting at two points: around mile 100 and mile 1,000. Those who make it past mile 100 are the hikers who carve out new habits amid the challenge of their new lives: wearing clothes clammy with yesterday’s sweat, squatting behind a tree to go to the bathroom, and eating ramen for dinner every night become the norm.

But hikers who establish those useful on-trail habits tend to get bored of them as soon as the novelty and challenge are gone. The boredom often hits around mile 1,000, at the beginning of Northern California.

“Why did I end my hike with only 250 miles until Canada?” 2015 hiker Brett Pallastrini asked in his journal. “I was done hiking. I was mentally over it.”

Whether hiking a trail, tackling a project at work, or even just hitting the couch for too many Friends episodes, the feeling of being “over it” can be so strong that we abandon goals or habits that once excited us. Thankfully, we can step in and shake things up.

The feeling of being 'over it' can be so strong that we abandon goals or habits that once excited us.
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The Downside of Habits

Habits, aka those automated actions we repeat on the reg, help us achieve goals. Want to lose weight? Make a habit of eating breakfast instead of skipping it. Want to write a novel? Make it a habit to wake up a half hour early and write.

What no one mentions—but those Pacific Crest Trail hikers learned firsthand—is that those same habits that you establish to achieve your goals can turn on you. When we get too accustomed to a particular behavior we perform en route to a goal, we are more likely to quit. Like a Fixer Upper marathon that has leaves you groaning "Another open floor plan? Really?," our goal becomes boring, and we look for new thrills.

When we get too accustomed to a particular behavior we perform en route to a goal, we are more likely to quit.
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University of Southern California psychology and business professor Wendy Wood has researched this phenomenon, and she calls it the “Double Law of Habits”: “Repetition has multiple effects,” she says. “One is to strengthen the memory trace for an action, so that habitual tendencies get stronger. The other is to weaken your emotional response (boredom starts), so that you are no longer getting much kick from what you are doing.”

Even habits as longstanding and simple as brushing your teeth are plagued by the Double Law, Wood says. If you give people toothbrushes that monitor when they brush their teeth, you find that most people brush consistently in the morning, to eliminate bad breath, but evening tooth-brushing gets neglected when they are too tired or busy.

“We speculate that people whose lives are characterized by large proportions of habitual behavior can find that their emotional experiences become dull and subdued over time,” Wood and her colleagues wrote in a recent study.

Remix Your Habits

While there is plenty of advice on how to establish habits to help you meet your goals, there is little research about what to do when those habits get boring. So what do we do in the meantime?

Find out how to change your habits ever so slightly to make them interesting again.

What some of the Pacific Crest hikers did: For their 2015 hike, Catie Joyce-Bulay and her group downloaded a smartphone app with riddles—some of which took a day or two to solve. Other hikers turn their focus to blogging about the hike, or spend their hiking hours listening to books on tape they had always wanted to read—in other words, sharing their experiences with others or keeping their minds occupied.

Find out how to change your habits ever so slightly to make them interesting again.
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If your goal has gone stale, take a cue from the hikers and think about how to make it more compelling again.

For example, say your goal is to eat healthier. You’ve gotten into a good routine of cooking healthy dinners for the last few months. But suddenly, you find yourself ignoring your planned recipes and answering the siren song of Popeye's. Your habit of cooking a healthy dinner got too familiar—and Popeye's started to sound too good.

The solution? Sit down and brainstorm new ways to eat vegetables and whole grains that you would find appealing. Do you love going out to restaurants? Plan to go out to dinner twice a week for the next month and order only healthy dishes. Do you think trying new recipes is fun? Challenge yourself to cook every grain recipe from your favorite food blog.

But be careful when remixing a habit: It can be tempting to challenge yourself with new behaviors that set the bar higher (ex. only cook extravagant healthy dishes). But it's not about making a habit harder—it's more about making it feel fresh.

“You want to change things up to make it more fun again, not less fun,” Wood says. Thinking hard about what makes something fun for you is vital."

Studies show that when we are engaged in activities that bring us a sense of joy, we tend to work harder and perform better. If you are able to introduce joy into the habits you perform en route to your goal, you may have greater success at reaching it.

When we're engaged in activities that bring us a sense of joy, we tend to work harder and perform better.
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It is normal to be “over it” at some point as you work toward your goals. When this happens, you can decide to power through or try to liven up the process. Adding fun back into a dull routine is a more successful strategy, especially when you’re further away from the finish line.

A version of this article originally appeared on Greater Good, the online magazine of the Greater Good Science Center at UC Berkeley.


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