The Power of Having a Strong ‘Why’ when Creating or Breaking Habits!

We all have habits we want to build or break. But why don’t we take the action we need to make a change?

One way to increase the chances of making the change you want is to understand your “Why.”

What is Your ‘Why’?
Thanks to his book Find Your Why, author Simon Sinek might be the most popular figure in the conversation about finding your Why. He’s not alone; many personal development specialists emphasize its importance.

Many of us know precisely how to achieve what we want:
“just work hard!”
“just sit and meditate.”
“Just stop eating chocolate.”

But we find we still can’t seem to get there. This isn’t a problem of knowing how to do something; it’s a symptom of not having a strong enough “Why.”

Your “Why” will be unique to you. Some people improve their habits because they want to make significant positive changes in themselves and the world. Others might improve their habits because doing so lets them have more fun life experiences.

Regardless, if your Why gets you to build good habits and let go of negative ones, it’s perfectly acceptable. Let’s check out some examples:

Habit / GoalStrong WhyWeak Why
RunningBeing healthier to live a longer life.Looking good.
Working on a business to make more money.Providing for loved ones.Social status.
Reading dailyTo have a more diverse point of view of the world.To impress people at parties with my knowledge. 

How to Find Your ‘Why’
It’s completely understandable if you can’t intuitivly think of your Why or what might inspire you to commit to developing a good habit (or dropping a bad one) when times get hard.

Luckily, there are a few steps you can take to get a clearer sense of your Why:

  • Flow states:  Think back to a time when you were working on something challenging and time just flew by?  Maybe you enthusiastically put in long hours for a particular school or work project because you felt the reward of the process made up for the effort. Noticing when we get into a flow state is a good indicator that you are in your zone with a strong Why.
  • Is the process rewarding: What do you enjoy doing just for the sake of doing it, that others might find challenging?
  • Consider past experiences:  Think back to when a sacrifice you made felt more effortless than it usually does because the reason you were making the sacrifice was important enough to you. Knowing why you could easily cope with past difficulties can help you figure out what motivates you.
  • Imagine how you’d like to be remembered: You’re not going to be around forever. While that’s not always a pleasant idea to think about in too much detail, asking yourself how you’d like to be remembered will make discovering your driving values much easier.

The 5 Whys
Another powerful (and relatively simple) way you can uncover your “Why” is to use the “5 Whys” exercise. This involves asking yourself a basic question several times to uncover deeper motivations.

For example, maybe you want to start meditating. If so, the 5 Whys exercise may play out like this:

  • “I want to start meditating.” Why? (Why #1)
  • “I’ve read it can improve my mental health, and that’s important to me.”
    Why? (Why #2)
  • “Because being mentally healthy boosts my overall enjoyment of life, and I want to enjoy life as much as possible.” Why? (Why #3)
  • “Because I know from personal experience that life is short and I don’t want to waste it.” Why? (Why #4)
  • “Because I’ve known people who looked back on their lives regretting they didn’t do more to make the most of the short time they had here, and I resolved never to let that happen to me.” Why? (Why #5)
  • “Because I have friends and family that need me and I’m still healthly so by meditating I can savour life and avoid the most common regets of those at the end of their life.”

Wow, that is a powerful exercise!

We can land on the fact that deep down, a good reason for meditating is what life is short, and meditating can help us stay present and avoid regrets at the end of our life.

This example shows how asking yourself “why” five times can reveal the genuine reason you want to adopt a new habit. At first, we simply thought we wanted to meditate for its mental health benefits. By asking why several times, we arrived at a stronger motivator: we’ve had experiences that taught us they could regret their past when they reach the end of their life, and they want to use that knowledge and perspective to make the right choices now.

Wait But Why?
All that said, you shouldn’t be frustrated if you don’t immediately come up with values and incentives that motivate you to change your habits. This process takes time. Also, your Why can change over the years (and you don’t need to have just one). Just remember that trying to find your Why or thinking about a deeper intrinsic “Why” is valuable. If you want to improve your habits, having a good reason to do so will make a significant difference in your success.

Photo by Ian Schneider