Photo: Jack Moreh. Source: Free Range Stock Photos
The key to reaching long-term goals is establishing good, sustainable habits. Whether it’s saving for retirement or losing weight or improving your smile, we have to adjust our daily routines in order to reach our final destination.
Habits can be powerful and empowering. Along the 2,600-mile Pacific Coast Trail, scores of hikers quit right around mile 100, just where the mountains start to get big. They hadn’t established the routine of pack, hike, camp, and sleep. The first couple of weeks on the trail are exciting, and the novelty sustains them. But without a schedule and a plan, bad weather or challenging terrain or sore knees discourage them, and they stop.
Aristotle says habits are the key to living a virtuous life. Virtue is an active disposition to do the right thing, a daily choice to get up, eat a pop tart, and walk the trail. Author Charles Duhigg calls this “The Habit Loop,” a cycle of cue, response, and reward. To establish a new routine, or substitute a good habit for a bad one, we need to establish new rewards for new behaviors. That way, the cue gets re-programmed and neurologically intertwined with the reward. We’re also better at establishing new habits when we have accountability partners.
But there’s a downside to good habits: they can get boring. A lot of through-hikers on the Pacific Coast Trail quit around mile 1,000 – in the middle of some of the most gorgeous terrain in the United States. The same habits that we establish to help us make significant progress towards our goals turn on us. Like the “seven-year itch” in a marriage, we look for new thrills. The old, established reward system doesn’t hold as much appeal. We’re like dieters who find themselves at a McDonald’s. “How did I get here?” we ask. “I don’t even like McDonald’s!”
PCT near Donohue Pass. Photo: Steve Dunleavy. Source: Wikimedia
When this happens, we need to change our focus. It can’t be on the final goal, or even on the reward. We need to concentrate on the activity itself. One writer calls this a “harmonious passion,” a sense of delight in the work itself. If you want to get more vegetables into your diet, for example, find new ways to eat them. Try every vegetarian entrée you can find at local restaurants, or drive a little further to places with all-vegetarian menus. Above all, find ways to make it fun.
It’s normal to be “over it” at some point when you’re working towards a long-rang goal. You’ve gotten past initial hurdles and disillusions, but a long-term sense of dullness sets in. Relax, this is normal. Practicing mindfulness, a sense of losing yourself in the process, is how to keep yourself moving forward.
The Chinese philosopher Laozi said that a journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step. He could also have said that it continues by taking the next step. And the next. And the next. Suddenly, you’re there.
Douglas R. Tengdin, CFA
Charter Trust Company
“The Best Trust Company in New England”