Lately I’ve been wondering about something related to motivation and self-determination theory. Why do we fall into ruts if we’re naturally programmed to learn and grow?
The idea behind competence as a fundamental need is that human beings are driven to perform. We take pleasure in accomplishment. I don’t debate this is true; there are just so many examples of things people do because overcoming the challenge is satisfying. I don’t know that I would ever have tried running a long race if that weren’t the case.
If accomplishing stuff feels so good, why is it so easy for us to find ourselves sitting on the couch watching bad tv and eating delivery food? Why does it take so much mental and sometimes actual work to begin the process of getting something important done? Shouldn’t our minds be naturally able to avoid ruts?
I honestly don’t know the answer to why we fall into ruts, but here are a few educated guesses:
We get stuck on more basic needs.
Maslow’s hierarchy of needs is a classic psychological theory of motivation. Simply put, Maslow believed that people can only pursue “higher order” goals once their more basic needs had been met. Someone who is struggling to put food on the table isn’t likely to be moved to write the next great American novel; that person’s focus is on survival instead.
While most of us are lucky enough not to be worried about our next meal, feeling stressed out about bills, work, or family can be enough to take our attention away from healthy habits. And that can cause us to get into a rut.
Our good habits just aren’t doing it for us anymore.
The thing about healthy behaviors is that they’re often not enjoyable in their own right. Most of us would rather eat ice cream than kale salad, and lounge by a pool rather than work out in one. As Max Ogles says, “The reason these habits failed for me, and the number one reason people give up on good habits generally is that they just aren’t enjoyable.”
If the problem for you is that your healthy habits aren’t enjoyable, then your quest is to try to find a slant on them that you do like. Seek out healthy foods that you want to eat (I like pickles, salads from Sweetgreen, and fresh fish). Find a workout that feels fun (for me, running and spinning are great, but you’ll never find me in Zumba). You get the idea.
Our environment is designed for our old habits, not our new ones.
This is a big reason why we slip backwards from positive change and fail to try again. The biggest environmental factor influencing behavior is of course other people. Our friends and family have a huge impact on our own behavior. Research has consistently shown that our behavior changes as a function not just of the people in our immediate social circle, but even connections two and three nodes out. These effects are even stronger if they’re coming from multiple places at the same time.
So if you’re struggling to make a healthy change, or if you succeeded at making one but have gone back to your old habits, look at the people who are part of your environment. Are they making it easy for you to stay in your rut? If so, it may be time to start thinking explicitly about being different from your friends and family. In an extreme case, you might even want to branch out and make new friends who share your healthy hobbies.
As I said, I don’t know if there’s one right answer why we fall into ruts despite our pre-programming to learn and grow. Why do you think this happens? What helps you to break out of a rut?