Stop trying to change your habits and start playing with Deliberate Patterns instead

Photo by Jonny Gios on Unsplash

The Problems With Habits

Developing good habits is not the best path to happiness, productivity, success or any of the other things self-help books seem to think you want or need. Don’t get me wrong, having “good” habits is certainly a nice-to-have. All else being equal, I’d rather have “good” habits than “bad” habits. But I can’t even write that phrase without putting scare quotes around “good.” What does good mean? Are good habits universal across all people and cultures? What about for one person but across a long period of time? The fact that there was a period of my life where I was trying to gain weight in order to be a better hockey player, but am now a 35 year old office worker, is only slightly silly evidence that habits cannot stay static but actually need to evolve over time.

If philosophical arguments about what “good” means isn’t your cup of tea, try thinking about some of the other key characteristics of habit change. In most cases, they take a lot of effort over a long period of time to develop. Even worse, it seems like they’re relatively easy to break or lose, too. So, not only do you need to invest a ton of energy into the creation of a new habit (a habit which might no longer be fit for purpose in a relatively short period of time), but one or two off weeks might mean that you have to start over from scratch.

This isn’t even getting into all the weird moralizing that we tend to do about “good” or “bad” habits. Having good habits is too easily equated with being a good person while having bad habits is equated with being a bad person. They are an incredibly blunt, non-responsive, and emotionally charged tool that we somehow feel like we must get right in order to achieve what we want in our lives.

And, from what I can tell, there isn’t much pushback on the fundamental assumption that our habits are what we should be trying to change in the first place. So, I will take that step out onto that ledge and proudly say, “Habit change is for suckers.”

I don’t say that because I think we should all be happy to remain unchanged, unchallenged, or uninterested in growth. I’m not advocating for staying static. In fact, I’m arguing for the opposite. I think personal growth is a fundamentally positive phenomenon that is a cornerstone of what most humans want from their lives. People want to feel like they are becoming more capable, becoming more skilled in navigating their environments, and are better understanding their own psychology. Habits are not the best way to explore and develop these things. Instead, we should treat the “Deliberate Pattern” as the atomic unit of behavior change.

Deliberate Patterns

Deliberate Patterns are like recipes that create action in the world. Inspired by Christopher Alexander’s work on “pattern languages,” they describe moments of conscious and deliberate choosing to act a certain way in a certain environment because you’re curious what effect it will have on you and the world. You could argue that Deliberate Patterns that have become completely engrained into how you behave are actually the same things as good habits. However, this flavor of Deliberate Pattern is such a vanishingly small proportion of all the potential patterns available to you yet they take up far and away the most space in the discourse around personal development.

Instead, I want to shift your attention to the world of Deliberate Patterns that are unlikely to ever become habits — but are still absolutely worth exploring.

The reason non-habit Deliberate Patterns are worth exploring is because every time you try one you learn more about yourself. They are little tests, challenges, or inquiries that knock you a little bit off of equilibrium. They poke you. And in that poking you have an opportunity to watch how you respond. That observation gives you hints about other Deliberate Patterns that you might want to explore in order to further develop an area of self-knowledge.

A straightforward example might go something like this: You’re curious about what it would be like to change your diet so you decide that twice a week you’ll eat a vegetarian diet. You realize that making that change wasn’t very hard and you’re actually feeling a little bit better physically and mentally. You decide to read a bit more about vegetarianism and then decide to experiment with eating vegetarian every day except the weekend. Later, you decide to fully step into a vegetarian diet because you’ve slowly shown yourself over time that it’s something you’re capable of doing, that it changes your life for the better, and makes you feel like a better version of yourself. The one caveat with this example, though, is that you don’t have to see every experiment through to its logically most extreme version. Even stopping that experiment chain after the first small experiment, eating vegetarian twice a week, would still be worth doing! That slight variation from business-as-usual would be enough to help you learn something about yourself.

The world is not designed to automatically help you develop this self-knowledge and mastery. You have to create these moments for yourself.

Each new pattern you experiment with shines light on new parts of your identity. You don’t have to permanently adopt a pattern, like how we often think of habits, to get that benefit. Most patterns, even if adopted for only a week, will tell you something about yourself. As you experiment with more patterns you’ll uncover some that are worth integrating into your everyday life. It’s just becomes part of who you are. Others turn out to be useful or interesting but aren’t necessarily something you want to keep doing forever. Some of these you’ll keep in your Deliberate Pattern toolbox, ready to put back into action if and when the time is right. Others, though, you’ll just do once. All of these are good, helpful, and set you on that path toward self-mastery.

What I’m most excited by is what it looks like when there is a publicly accessible list of all the various Deliberate Patterns people have tried, tips for implementing them, and the insights they led to. I’ve started building this here and I hope to make it something the community can contribute to in the near future. For now, though, feel free to poke through the various Deliberate Patterns I’ve written up so far and take them as inspiration for your own experiments. If you do try any of them out, I’d love to hear how they go for you!

In the mean time, don’t overthink it. Just think about something you might want to try differently for a week, figure out how to make that change for a short period of time, and take note of how it goes. At the end, spend a few minutes thinking about and writing what you noticed and what you learned about yourself. You might be inspired to do the same experiment again, tweak it, or drop it entirely and do something else. There’s no wrong answers, just more aspects of your identity and psychology to explore!

Follow me on Twitter and subscribe to my newsletter, The Deliberate, to participate in the ongoing exploration of deliberate patterns and how they can be thoughtfully applied to living better.

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Organization design guy at The Ready.

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Sam Spurlin

Sam Spurlin

Organization design guy at The Ready.

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