We all do it in some form – tell ourselves we’re going to do something but in the end, we don’t stick to habits. Maybe one or more of these will resonate with you:
- You say you’re going to stick to a certain diet, but you end up breaking it in half a day, and then mostly abandoning it.
- You promise to work hard on certain projects and not procrastinate anymore, and then you get distracted by something and the plan goes out the door.
- You’ve decide to meditate (or do yoga, read, write, etc.) every morning, but on one of these mornings you are in a rush or are tired and skip the meditation. Then you do it again the next day.
- You say you’re going to stay on top of your email, or read more, or finally tackle that clutter and the plan doesn’t even get off the ground.
- You plan to work out four times a week, and that works out exactly once, then you just don’t go to the gym.
So what’s going on? Are we just horrible people, with no discipline? Are we liars, never to be believed? Or are we hopeless cases, consigned to spending a life on the couch eating donuts and potato chips, watching Netflix and hating ourselves?
I find this a fascinating subject, and I’ve been studying it in myself and in the thousands of people I’ve worked with. Here’s what I’ve been finding.
The Reasons We Don’t Stick With Our Plan
One of the things I’ve found is that there isn’t always just one reason. Sometimes it’s multiple reasons at once, or other times it’s different reasons depending on the situation or the type of person you are.
But here are some of the most common reasons we don’t stick to habits:
We don’t take it seriously
This is my No. 1 problem in this area – I tell myself I’m going to stick to a habit, but I think that’s enough to make it happen. I somehow assume it’s going to be easy, despite all the past evidence that the only time I stick to habits is when I take them seriously and put in a serious effort. Most of the time, we just half commit to something, kind of like only being half in a relationship – with that kind of commitment, eventually you’ll be out of it.
We just forget
We tell ourselves we’re going to meditate every day, with complete resolve. Then the morning comes and we just plain forget. We remember later, but we’re busy then. The next morning, we forget again. By the time we remember, we feel disappointed with ourselves and give up.
We run from discomfort or uncertainty
When the exercise habit (or meditation) gets uncomfortable, we stop enjoying it, and make up excuses to put it off (see No. 5 below). When we face a difficult habit like writing or big tasks at work, there is a lot of uncertainty in those tasks, so we start finding reasons to put it off. We don’t like uncertainty or discomfort, so we try to get out of it.
We give in to temptation, out of habit
Temptation is all around us: the temptation of chocolate cake when we said we’re going to stick to a diet, the temptation of TV when we said we’re going to go to bed earlier, the temptation of the phone or Internet when we said we’re going to meditate. Actually, temptation is just a bit of discomfort, but our habitual response is to just give in. Rationalize, and let the temptation rule our response.
When something gets difficult, or we have a temptation in front of us, our minds start to rationalize why it’s OK to do what we said we weren’t going to do. Our brains can be very good at rationalizing: “Just one more won’t hurt,” or “You worked hard, you deserve it,” or “This time doesn’t count, you’ll start tomorrow,” or “It’s a special occasion, this is a good exception.” Those all sound reasonable, except that they sabotage our plans. Once we start to believe these rationalizations, sticking to anything goes out the door.
We say we’re going to do something, then when the moment comes to do it, we’re feeling temptation, discomfort, uncertainty, and so we start to say, “Well, I’m still going to do it, but in 5 minutes, after I check my messages.” Or, “I’m tired right now, I’ll just take a day off and do it tomorrow.” This is another form of rationalization – basically, just a habitual response to not wanting to do something, a way to get out of it. My friend once said one of the most harmful things to self-discipline and building trust in ourselves is the habit of renegotiating with ourselves.
We dislike the experience and avoid things we dislike
This seems natural – if I don’t like to eat vegetables, I probably will avoid them. If I don’t like to face an uncomfortable writing task, I’ll put it off. But the problem is that with every habit, with every difficult project, we’re going to find multiple moments of discomfort, of disliking the experience. We’ll never stick to habits if we bail as soon as we dislike something. Instead, we have to see that this habit of disliking, judging, resenting, mentally complaining, and avoiding, and it’s hurting us. We don’t need to like everything about an experience to put ourselves fully into it; we’re stronger than that.
We forget why it’s important
Maybe you started out taking something seriously, but then a week into it, you’ve forgotten. Now you’re just thinking about how uncomfortable it is. If we forget the importance of something – and if something doesn’t really matter to us, we shouldn’t commit to it – if we forget, we won’t have a good reason to push into discomfort.
We get down on ourselves or give up in disappointment
When we falter, when we don’t meet our ideals or expectations, when we mess up in some way, it’s actually not a big deal. Just learn from it and start again. But instead, we often beat ourselves up, feel super disappointed in ourselves. This isn’t helpful, and can actually sabotage our efforts.
There are too many barriers
This is the simplest one, but we often forget. Let’s say I want to start eating healthier, and even have a plan for how I want to eat. But then morning comes, I’m hungry and in a hurry, and I’m supposed to make a tofu scramble, which requires a lot of chopping of vegetables, cooking, cleaning … too many things to do right now when I’m hungry, so I’ll just eat the bagel that will take 2 minutes to make. This is a big problem with most things we want to stick to – there are barriers that are too high for when we’re tired, rushed, or not feeling like it. Driving 20 minutes to the gym, having to declutter the living room before you meditate, having a lot of distractions when you write, anything that requires more than 5 minutes of prep time before we can get started … it’s too high of a barrier.
OK, so those are the reasons we don’t stick to habits. Many of you are pretty familiar with these, but it’s good to be reminded, and it’s a smart idea to give them some consideration. Why do we let these obstacles continue to trip us up? Aren’t there good solutions?
Yes, there are – and they’re not all that difficult to implement, if we just consciously decide to do them and then take action to remember them and make them happen. Let’s take a look.