Week five! So far on our journey, we’ve learned how to:
Now it’s time to get serious about dealing with the very real obstacles on the road to habit change. If you’ve already stumbled in your 2021 goals, it’s time for a fresh start—this time with more tools at hand to help you with the rough patches.
The biggest challenges in habit change can be lumped into two camps.
1. Continuing a negative habit.
This is the “falling off the wagon” scenario in which you’re trying to quit something that doesn’t serve you—perhaps you’re trying to stop smoking, drink less, or avoid foods that you know trigger unhealthy eating. You might be trying to curb your spending, reduce your social media use, or stop being critical of others. But try as you might, one day you give in to the very thing you’ve sworn off.
2. Losing momentum on a positive habit.
This is the opposite scenario, in which you’re trying to start a new positive habit. You might be trying to drink more water, eat more nutritious foods, or exercise more. Perhaps you’re trying to write daily, or develop a meditation practice, or show more gratitude. But try as you might, one day you simply don’t do the very thing you’ve promised to.
One Moment is Not All Moments
Your first approach should be to change the way you feel about obstacles, misfires, lapses, and all other challenges on the way to better habits. You will rarely adopt a new habit perfectly, right away, and this is particularly true of healthy lifestyle changes. Changing your diet, quitting smoking, drinking less alcohol, becoming more active—these are all difficult changes to make. You will almost certainly face challenges.
To this, we say: who cares? Missing one daily walk isn’t a character flaw. Giving in to a less-healthy food choice isn’t going to kill you.
But what is a problem is letting one bad choice become permission to give up.
One lapse is not a failure. One bad day is not a sentence. Accept that you will face challenges. And plan, right now, to simply get back up each time you fall. This is your habit change, and you get a fresh slate every day if you choose it.
Psychology has some help for staying the course in the form of implementation intentions. Simply put, this is a plan for when and where you intend to perform a new habit.
Author James Clear says:
The simple way to apply this strategy to your habits is to fill out this sentence:
I will [BEHAVIOR] at [TIME] in [LOCATION].
- I will meditate for one minute at 7 a.m. in my kitchen.
- I will study Spanish for twenty minutes at 6 p.m. in my bedroom.
- I will exercise for one hour at 5 p.m. in my local gym.
- I will make my partner a cup of tea at 8 a.m. in the kitchen.
To apply this to a negative habit, try using a substitute behaviour. “When I get the urge to [negative behaviour] I will do [positive behaviour].” The idea is that this pre-planning can interrupt your habit loop enough to get you past the initial urge.
Know Your Triggers and Pitfalls
Habits are neural patterns. They’re wired into your brain in a kind of loop, and every loop has a cue—a signal that initiates the pattern. Stress makes you crave a drink. The chime of your phone causes you to check your messages.
If you observe your negative habits, you can look for the cues that precede them. What happened just before I went down the YouTube rabbit hole? Why did I have the drink I didn’t really want?
Likewise, if you observe the times you stumble on your positive habits, you can ask similar questions. Why did I miss that walk? Why didn’t I make a lunch yesterday?
The beauty of this approach isn’t just that you can avoid future problems, but that you get to treat a “failure” as a way of getting better. Each time your habit change breaks down, you get to learn a way to make your habit stronger in the future.
As you can tell from the list above, anticipating problems is just that—it’s anticipating. It’s looking ahead and knowing that life happens. That things don’t always go as planned. It’s not expecting that your progress will be perfect or easy.
We all want to be hopeful. Optimistic. We’re drawn to the failure is not an option attitude.
When it comes to habits, however, we prefer failure isn’t permanent. Expect that there will be bumps on the habit highway. Take them with all the grace you can. Learn from them.
Then cut yourself some slack and keep on going!