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7 Benefits of Temporary Habits

Picking up and dropping habits can be beneficial, not a habit failure.

Key points

  • It can be easy to consider a temporary habit a "failure" because it wasn't permanent, but a temporary habit can still add value to one's life.
  • Temporarily doing an activity every day can help one decide if that activity really reflects their desires and priorities.
  • A temporary habit can help someone build a skill, even if it doesn't need to be continued long-term to retain the skill.

When people think of habits, they often consider any habit that's not permanent as a failure. For example, Jack starts running every day, then stops. Jack might consider that a habit failure.

No revisions/Unsplash
Source: No revisions/Unsplash

In terms of public policy, the goal is also usually for the public to develop permanent habits—for example, recycling or conserving water.

However, in ordinary life, temporary daily habits can have a lot of value.

The value of temporary habits

Temporary habits can:

1. Help you become efficient.

Let's say you take on a temporary habit of making a homemade lunch from scratch every day. When you force yourself to do this daily, you'll find ways to become efficient at it. Even if you don't keep up the daily habit forever, you'll still have those efficiency hacks in your toolkit. Unlike hacks you read about, when you develop your own hacks, you'll know they work for you personally. They're not gimmicks. (I teach how to develop your own efficiency hacks, in a lot more detail, in Stress-Free Productivity.)

2. Help clarify your values.

When you do an activity every day, it'll help you see whether it really reflects your values, likes, and priorities. When you're actually doing the activity every day (rather than imagining doing it daily), does it seem like you're living your best life? Or does it seem like you don't want to spend a big swath of your life doing that activity?

Here's an example:

  • When I write most weekdays, that feels really good to me. I feel creatively energized by it. It makes my life feel on track. That creative act seems to infuse my life generally with more creativity.
  • In contrast, when I go to the gym every day, I realize I don't want to be spending my life inside a dark gym. It makes me realize I prefer more naturalistic exercise.

3. Distinguish reality vs. ideals (and false social messages.)

In our minds, we often think doing an activity every day, with extreme consistency, would be ideal. Sometimes when we attempt to do that activity daily for a sustained period, we learn that it's not sustainable to do it every day, and a frequency less than that would actually be more ideal for us.

4. Help you understand how your priorities fit together.

Daily habits are incredibly limited in real estate. Often it's not so much time that's the limiting factor, but focus and energy. Many of us have too many activities we highly value in our lives to do them all every day.

For example, I homeschool my child. Sometimes, I can "phone this in." For example, I can print a worksheet with questions and hand it to her.

On other days, I need to devote some time, energy, and attention to helping her manage an aspect of her school work she's struggling with emotionally. For instance, she's a really confident reader, but much less confident at writing her own stories. On days I need to help her manage her emotions, I will drop some of my personal habits to make room for this. Sure, technically I might have time to do both, but I might not have the mental energy for both.

When you attempt to do an activity every day, you'll gain an understanding of how your priorities sometimes compete. You'll sometimes learn that, even though a certain activity is valuable to you and you enjoy it, doing it daily crowds out other things that are important to you. There's a science and an art to figuring out how you can swap your habits in and out to make enough room for all your priorities without jeopardizing your habits.

5. Make behavioral sequences automatic.

Habits are effective because they make behavioral sequences automatic and save us from using unnecessary brainpower and excess decision-making. Because of this, habits make behaviors easier. The more automatic a habit becomes, the less conscious self-control it requires.

But habits don't need to be permanent to have these benefits.

I used to live in New York City. I took the subways multiple times almost every day. Subway riding became an automatic habit. I could've used the ticketing machines and swiped my ticket with my eyes closed. Before entering a subway car, I'd always glance to make sure it wasn't more empty than the other cars (as that was a sure sign there was a bad smell or the air conditioning was broken in that car.)

Subway riding is enough of an over-learned habit for me that, when I'm back in New York visiting, all my prior learning takes back over.

Our habits are sometimes the most useful for a season. For example, I'm currently pregnant. When I switched to side sleeping, I started getting a sore shoulder. Within a few days of this happening, I reinstated the system of pillows I used the last time I was pregnant so that I stopped getting the sore shoulder. I resumed the habit of setting up the pillows upon getting into bed each night.

Many habits work best as daily habits but are most useful for specific seasons of your life, rather than a lifetime.

What habits are like this for you? You might literally have different summer, spring, fall, and winter habits, as an example.

It's useful to keep up temporary habits long enough that the sequence of behaviors involved becomes automated in your long-term memory. But, you don't necessarily need to keep doing the habit every day to maintain that benefit.

6. Build a skill quickly.

Sometimes concentrated learning (through daily doing) is the best way to build a skill. Once you reach the level of proficiency you're after, you might not need to do it daily to retain the skill.

7. Allow for more experimentation.

As I said earlier, daily habits are very limited in real estate. Even the best daily habit carries an opportunity cost. Trying many different things is good for us. Engaging in lots of novel activities builds diverse skills and relationships, and gives us practice in handling a wide range of emotions. It's good for creativity, and it's typically beneficial for our mood. In other words, novelty builds our resilience in a range of ways.

Ultra-consistent daily habits can have value for building grit, focus, and discipline. But, those strengths are not the be-all-and-end-all. Other psychological strengths are important for our success and happiness too.

The number of ultra-consistent daily habits someone can keep up is often more a sign of their privilege than their psychological prowess. If you get down on yourself because you think you should keep up more permanent, daily habits, then consider temporary habits (or habits you swap in and out) instead. Habits you perform often enough that they become relatively automatic behavioral sequences can have a lot of value, even if you need to swap them in and out to make room for all your priorities, values, and commitments. Don't over-depend on habit streaks for motivation as relying on these can create fragile habits and be bad for your overall psychological health and decision-making.

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