Memory or Habit: What are you trying to create?

Zoom out far enough on your life and you will see that everything you currently do ends up as either a memory or a lifetime habit.

This simple zoom lens can help you choose the strategy to use. Why? Because memories and habits often require polar opposite strategies.

Let’s first look at the strategy around habits (for more background on habits, check out this post). If you are trying to build habits, the ultimate goal is sustainability, meaning it should be strong enough to operate “forever”.

If your goal is sustainability, your strategy should focus on continuity of action and incremental progress while avoiding anything drastic that might throw everything off.

A simple way to test if something is a candidate for a habit is to ask yourself “Do I still want to be doing this regularly when I’m 80?”

For memories, the opposite is true. The point is to get the memory so the right strategy might include short term sacrifices such as long hours and lost sleep. Often more drastic moves are not only necessary, but can even improve the quality of the memory.

Take travel for instance. My best travel stories (ie. memories) involve cancelled flights, desperate overnight car rides, and other minor disasters. It’s happened often enough to our family that when faced with the choice of cancelling a trip or engaging in a sleepless night of lines and headaches, we just go for it, with the rallying cry of “let’s go build a memory!” It usually works to get us through it all with a smile on our faces. 

Do I want to do that regularly when I’m 80? Definitely not.

“Travel” on the other hand, is different. I certainly want to travel when I’m 80. However, this involves a different strategy of regularly finding new places to go year after year, and watching folks older than me who travel a lot to figure out exactly how they do it. It also helps reinforce the need to stay healthy for the long term.

Exercise is another good area to understand the difference between memories and lifetime habits.

Research has demonstrated that regular exercise is a great way to stay healthy. If you want to incorporate that into your life, the key word is “regular” – ie. for the rest of your life – which makes this habit territory. 

There are also exercise “events”. Climbing Mount Everest is an obvious one. It’s a feat of strength and endurance, and can make a fabulous memory (or so I’ve heard – it’s not for me as you’ll see in the next sentence). It is also clear that climbing Mount Everest is bad for your health – you are deprived of oxygen, your body wastes away, and you open yourself to all kinds of altitude problems.

So we have both exercise habits for health and exercise events for memories. 

Which brings us to a common problem I’ve seen: people using a memory strategy to create a habit.

It sometimes goes like this:  “I want to be healthier this year so I’m going to commit to running a marathon”.

Running a marathon is indeed an impressive feat, but the real question is what happens afterwards? While it might turn running into a lifelong habit, there is also a distinct possibility that you’ll go celebrate and “take a break” from running given how much work it would take to do it in the first place.

If what you really want is a lifetime running habit, a better strategy would be to start with the shortest distance that you can easily accomplish and try to do it for as many days in a row as you can. Once you get the consistency, make it slightly more challenging periodically until you are at at the level you think would be a good distance when you are 80.  

So take a look at the major goals you have for 2020 and ask yourself, “Is this going to be a memory or a habit?” And then check you are using the best strategy to get you there.

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