Starting habits is easy. Keeping them going is hard. If you’ve slipped, try these tips to get your habits back on track.
Cast your mind back to the first of January this year. It’s been some time now, but if you were anything like me, back then you made a slew of resolutions designed to create a new you that was healthier, more productive, and just all round better. I even wrote about my goals in My word of the year: Habit. And I’ve done really well with them… until recently.
What threw me off was getting sick. But habits can be thrown by any number of things. Your colleague bringing in a birthday cake to work. A late meeting that means no time for exercise. Even the lure of just not doing what you’ve set your mind to do can be scarily attractive.
I read somewhere that we often opt for what is easier rather than what makes us happy (unfortunately a google search has failed to produce the source of this finding). This explains why that despite the endorphin rush you get after a run and the sense of pride and achievement, you still have to talk yourself into going and view sitting on a couch binge-watching shows as the default choice.
But giving up is not an option! You wanted those things for a reason, right? So before too much time goes by, here is a list of techniques you can incorporate if you too have fallen off the habit bandwagon to get right back on track.
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Assess their importance: are you habits still serving you?
The first thing is to have a look at all the habits you’ve been working on. What was at their core- the goal behind the habit? Once you’ve identified that, ask yourself, “Is the habit actually meeting this goal? Is the goal still something I want?” If you answered no to the first question, could you try something else instead? If you answered no to the second, can you modify the goal, or should it just be crossed off the list?
My husband and I aimed to exercise regularly this year and also to walk the dogs every day. However, certain commitments have led to many a late arrival home. This has created a lot of pressure as we’ve struggled to fit in everything before bed. We talked about this last night and decided that we will no longer walk the dogs on the weekdays we’re running. We’ll be getting more distance in as I’m moving into half-marathon training, and they’ll still get walked five nights out of seven (and before you ask, we can’t take the dogs running with us. One is too little and the other is too old and has a habit of stopping abruptly and needing to be pulled along). So we’ve kept one goal and modified the second, and this feels much more doable.
Fix your environment
Before you get started on your habits once more, make sure you have fixed up your environment. It is so much easier to structure your environment to support yourself rather than rely on willpower. Trying to eat healthily but there are a few blocks of chocolate in the pantry and a tub of ice cream in the freezer? Get rid of them. Maybe you want to exercise after work but keep forgetting your gear. Could you just keep it in the car? Work out what was happening in the environment that caused you to lose track of your habits and then address it. There is always a solution!
Hook into the spiral of success
Now that you’re raring to go, it’s important to succeed in at least one aspect of your habits as fast as possible. We talk about this a lot in teaching. Let’s face it, it doesn’t feel good to fail, and it takes a lot of strength to keep trying if failure is the consistent result of your efforts. Yet if you can experience success, you boost your confidence, feel more motivated, and try again, hence creating the spiral.
To get into the spiral you need to look at your “easiest” habit of the ones you have dropped. Of the habits I have incorporated into my life this year, drinking two liters of water a day is the easiest. So the first day I started to feel normal after being sick, I just focused on drinking my water. Yesterday I walked the dogs for the first time since Tuesday, and this morning I went for a run. Each habit is a little harder but as I did one, I felt motivated to do the next one. But what if this isn’t quite enough?
Experiment with a/b testing
In relation to habits, a/b testing is when you take something you have been doing and try a different way of doing it, or a different thing altogether, and then compare the results. If you’re anything like me, I used to plan how to achieve my goals but if I got off track or it didn’t work, I felt like I had failed. A/b testing gives you the mental freedom to experiment with different things and then evaluate them to work out which one has the best outcome.
You know you’re committed to your habits, so you design some tests. For example, you’ve been trying to exercise straight after work, but it just doesn’t happen. You might decide to try one week exercising in the morning and then one week exercising after dinner. At the end of the three weeks, you’ll decide which one was easier to incorporate into your daily routine. Or instead of running, you might do some free introductory classes in yoga, or try some weight training.
The purpose is to not lock yourself into one set way, but to experiment to find out what works for you, rather than assume you know.
Schedule your habits when possible
It could be that life is getting in the way of your habits. Well, truth is, life gets in the way all the time. While you might have specific days you like to do things, such as go to the gym, as mentioned above, there are plenty of times when outside events might throw this off. Expecting and anticipating this can make a world of difference.
Make sure you look at your week ahead and assess what you have to deal with, so that you can block your exercise or whatever your habit is, into your planner. At the same time, assess your priorities. There’s a saying that how you spend your time is what you value. If you value this habit and what it can bring to your life, schedule it ahead of other things such as a coffee catch-up with friends. You can even set alarms on your phone as a trigger to tell you it’s time to get started.
Cue / routine / reward
Speaking of triggers, or cues, there’s another reason why your habits may be failing. Are you attending to all aspects of the habit loop? There’s more to a habit than just doing the thing in question. Do you have a cue and a reward? If this isn’t making any sense, Charles Duhigg talks about this in his book The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business ( If you don’t have or want to buy the book, you can click here for a detailed explanation).
Basically, his idea is that habits are cued by signals. These signals could be location, time, emotional state, other people, or an immediately preceding action. They could even be a combination of two or more of the above. Therefore, if you don’t have a clearly defined cue, seek to add one to your habit. Maybe you put your dog leads next to the key holder, drink a glass of water every hour on the hour, or do fifty pushups as soon as you get out of bed in the morning.
Once you have the cue and the routine, you also need to think about the reward. That could be as simple and intrinsic as just doing the activity, or, could be clocking your steps on a Fitbit or logging your workout, or treating yourself to a massage every 100 workouts. A/b test rewards too and see what motivates you the most.
Know your tendency and leverage it
Gretchen Rubin’s four tendencies work is really helpful in understanding how to get habits back on track. If you haven’t taken the quiz to find out what you are, go take it once you have finished reading this article.
To make brief something deeply fascinating, if you’re an Obliger, you meet outer expectations but resist inner expectations, so to get back on track, do something like arrange to exercise with a friend. You won’t want to let them down, so voila, you turn up and exercise. If you’re an upholder, every time you do your habit, write it all down in your planner so it’s in your face. If you’re a questioner, do some research again into why you wanted to do the habit in the first place or even how best to implement habits. If you’re a rebel you’ll know what’s best for you, so I won’t bother saying anything!
Take what you know about yourself and your tendency and use it.
Finally- plan for slower change
If you’ve tried all this and you’re still not winning, maybe you are just trying to change too much all at once. The body strives to maintain homeostasis, which means it seeks to maintain itself and its life within some fairly narrow constraints. Try to change too much, your body will strive to return to its set point. James Clear has a great article on this. The trick here is to focus on small changes. Maybe you were trying to lose weight by cutting your calories (a method I don’t recommend for many reasons), and you dropped from 2000 a day to 1200, but you couldn’t sustain it. Try eating from a smaller plate for dinner instead. You’ll be amazed what a slow change over time can achieve.
If you’ve read this and feel inspired to pick up those habits again, then yay you! Just remember that it took you a long time to get to where you are, and therefore changing takes time as well. The key thing is to not give up. Nothing will ever change if you do.
I’d love to know if you have had any success with any of these techniques for getting your habits back on track, or even how you’re going with those New Year’s resolutions!
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