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Habits — the most fascinating subject. These tiny actions we do every day — and probably don’t even notice — have a big impact on our lives. Some of these habits are beneficial, others … not so much. So, it’s important to keep the good ones and figure out how to keep the bad ones from sneaking into our routine.
In my book Better Than Before, I describe the multiple strategies we can exploit to change our habits.
One thing I observed is that when we’re trying to master our habits, it’s important to be aware of the justifications or arguments that we sometimes invoke that interfere with keeping a good habit.
They slip in so easily and quickly, it can be hard to spot them. Be on the look-out for these five popular lines of thoughts:
1. Thinking, “Well, now that I’ve slipped up and broken my good habit, I might as well go all the way.”
I remind myself, “A stumble may prevent a fall.” Because of the colorfully named “what the h***” phenomenon, a minor stumble often becomes a major fall; once a good behavior is broken, we act as though it doesn’t matter whether it’s broken by a little or a lot. “I didn’t do any work this morning, so what the h***, I’ll take the rest of the week off and start on Monday.” “I missed my yoga class over spring break, so what the h***, I’ll start again in the fall.” It’s important to try to fail small, not big.
2. Thinking, “If I really beat myself up when I break a good habit, I’ll do a better job of sticking to it.”
Although some people assume that strong feelings of guilt or shame act as safeguards to help people stick to good habits, the opposite is true. People who feel less guilt and who show compassion toward themselves in the face of failure are better able to regain self-control, while people who feel deeply guilty and full of self-blame struggle more. Often, when we feel bad about breaking a good habit, we try to make ourselves feel better by — indulging in the bad habit! A woman told me, “I felt so bad about breaking my diet that I ate three orders of French fries.” This is the cruel poetic justice of bad habits.
3. Thinking, “Sure, I’m not sticking to the habit that’s meant to keep me productive, but look how busy I am.”
4. Thinking, “Of course I usually stick to my good habits, but in this situation, I can’t be expected to keep it up.”
We’re all adults, and we can mindfully make exceptions to our good habits, but alas, everything counts. Justifications like “It’s my birthday,” “I’m sick,” “It’s the weekend,” “I deserve it,” “I’ve been so good,” “You only live once,” are loopholes, meant to excuse us from responsibility. But nothing’s off the grid. Nothing stays in Vegas.
I love all the strategies in Better Than Before — they’re all powerful and fascinating — but I especially loved writing the chapter on the hilarious Strategy of Loophole-Spotting. We’re so ingenious of thinking of loopholes for ourselves!
5. Thinking, “I love my good habit so much, and I get so much satisfaction from it, that now it’s OK for me to break that habit.”
One danger point in habit-formation is the conviction that a habit has become so engrained that we can safely violate it: “I love my morning writing sessions so much, I’d never give them up,” “I stopped eating cereal two years ago, so now it’s OK for me to eat it.” Unfortunately, even long-standing habits can be more fragile than they appear, so it pays not to get complacent.
What have I missed? What traps catch you, when you’re trying to keep a good habit?
Gretchen Rubin is the author of the blockbuster New York Times bestsellers, Better Than Before, The Happiness Project, and Happier at Home. On her weekly podcast Happier with Gretchen Rubin, she discusses good habits and happiness with her sister Elizabeth Craft. She writes about happiness and habit-formation at gretchenrubin.com. Follow her on Twitter, @gretchenrubin, or on Facebook at facebook.com/GretchenRubin.