Why we can't stick to habits, and how to fix that

So you want to improve yourself. You get fired up after reading some motivational piece, maybe it's Goggins or Willink or just something random online. And you decide to get yourself in gear.
You've also read (or at least heard of) Atomic Habits and you know that you should start small. So you say OK, 10 pushups and 10 squats, 3 times a day. Doesn't sound too hard, right? Takes all of 5 minutes and the first time you do it, and the burn barely registers.
To make yourself accountable you install a habit tracker and even publicly announce your goals so that you won't be able to easily back out of this.
Day one looks good and you feel awesome. Day two is even better. You start to feel good, the dopamine is pumping, that motivation momentum everyone is talking about is kicking in. Your life is going to be different from now on.
You remember the idea of habit stacking and you decide to add a little more to each of your workouts, maybe 20 crunches. This only adds a few minutes and doesn't seem like a problem.
After a week of this, you feel the best you have in a long time. But then - disaster strikes. Just as you're getting ready for your quick evening workout, your boss calls. The server is down and he needs you to take a quick look. You keep your workout clothes on sure you'll be back to the workout in a few minutes and open your laptop.
Fast forward an hour later, you're still hunched in front of your laptop, cursing under your breath, getting annoyed. Hah! Finally. You got this thing fixed. You type out a quick email and close the laptop lid. Right, where were we?
But the moment is gone. The drive isn't there anymore and in fact, you're feeling a little hungry. You grab a bite, then eat a larger meal, then quickly check the news. One thing leads to another and the day is gone. You've missed your workout.
A part of you is saying that it's ok, you'll be able to get back at it tomorrow. But another part is not so sure. This part remembers all the other times you couldn't stick to your goals and this thought takes hold - maybe you can't do it at all. And then the guilt and shame sets in. You've publicly committed to this. And you find that that commitment has a flip side. Instead of pushing you to continue it suddenly feels like an impossible burden.
That night you find it hard to go to bed. The allure of Instagram is too hard to resist as you're running away from all that mental weight. You know that if you don't get enough sleep you'll find it hard to do your morning workout, buy there's a part of you that has already given up on that. Because if you can't stick to it 100%, then it's not going to work at all, will it?
This is the slippery slope that's the bane of many people who are trying to use habits as a means of self improvement.
In an attempt to improve yourself, you took up too much, didn't take into account your life situation (three workouts a day, even short ones is a lot), then slipped because of circumstances outside of your control, felt guilty about it, which made it worse, and then quit. And now it's even harder to start because you don't believe you'd ever be able to do it.
So instead, if you'd started small, looked at slumps not as a personal failure but as a signal that you need to adjust your goals and expectations, you might have been able to continue.
If on top of that you had some way to work through the guilt and slowly build your trust in yourself, you might have been able to slowly build up the habit into something sustainable and even enjoyable.
The thing that drives me nuts is that we treat our inability to stick to a habit as a problem, instead of seeing it as an inherent part of this whole dance. Of course you're going to fall of the wagon. Having a method that is predicated on you not skipping a single fucking day or ever slipping is utterly ridiculous. Life is never that stable, and when you have the chaos factor of kids or a job thrown in? Forget about it.
It has to be okay to skip days, to renegotiate agreements, to switch habits and to drop ones that don't work. It's has to be ok to take things ridiculously slowly and to make it easy in ourselves. It's has to be ok to be kind to ourselves, to forgive ourselves and to treat our bodies and minds with the care you'd give a small child trying to learn to walk.
Failure is not only an option - it's as unavoidable as gravity. And habit building is not about fighting failure - it's about embracing it, and using it as a guiding principle. If you fail to stick to a habit, it's not your fault. It's just an invitation to take a break, recharge, course correct and try a different approach.

Originally posted on reddit.com/r/getdisciplined.
Eli Finer

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Eli Finer