Stop me if you’ve heard this one before.
It’s January 17th and you’re 17 days into your new habit. You’re feeling pretty smug about being the sort of person who works out every morning, calls your senator every day, inserts-wholesome-activity-here.
In fact, you’re pretty sure that in four days you’ll cross over into the promised land of Established Habit! 21 days to a new you and all that, right?*
So when you wake up to an overcast sky or an empty fridge, you’re not too worried about – just this once! – not going to the gym. Or not calling your elected officials. Or not eating breakfast sitting down.
It’s just for today! You’ve been so good! Surely you can take a day off!
Of course you can.
But here’s the thing:
When we do something today, we’re making it easier to do it again tomorrow. Click To Tweet
Every time I do the stuff I say I don’t want to do – every time I sleep in my makeup or mindlessly eat cheese over the sink or stay in my pajamas till 2 pm – I’m making it easier for my Future Self to do that, too.
Each time I do these things I know don’t make me happy, I’m weakening my good habits. I’m undercutting all the hard work I put into building them.
The first night I sleep in my makeup, I can tell myself it’s a one-off.
The second, third, and fourth times I do it, it’s because I’m ‘too busy’ to spend five minutes with some Cetaphil.
And from then on, I sleep in my makeup because it’s apparently what I do now?
This applies to E-V-E-R-Y-T-H-I-N-G.
Every time we put off texting a friend on their birthday, we’re making it easier to forget other friend’s birthdays.
Every time we fall onto the sofa and open a laptop for an evening of Netflix binging, we’re making it easier to spend future nights doing the same thing.
Every time we carry our credit card balance over to the next month – all together now! – we’re making it easier to carry a balance in the future.
Why habit-strengthening happens
Our bodies remember the actions we take repeatedly
I’m sure you’ve witnessed this in your own life! You inadvertently drive back to your old apartment, weeks after moving. You sign your maiden name months after you’ve changed your last name. You try to push up your glasses while making a point, even though you’re not wearing them.
Our muscles hold memories. Like, literally. Not metaphorically.
The more frequently we do something, the easier it becomes. My face becomes accustomed to sleeping in a layer of concealer and eyeliner. My legs get used to standing while I eat. My skin thinks it’s normal to live inside pajamas and a fuzzy robe through breakfast and lunch.
Our bodies start to forget that whole wash + moisturize thing and start steering us and our makeup-covered faces into the bedroom.
The more often we have a thought process, the easier it is to have it again
Our thoughts travel down neural pathways. Just like our collective boyfriend Robert Frost famously notes, some of those paths are more traveled than others.
And as we all know, it’s much easier to take a well-trodden path. Who wants to swashbuckle through weeds and ticks when we can breeze down a familiar trail?
But when we create mental allowances – “They won’t notice I’m late,” “One more won’t matter,” “I’ve already screwed up today; I might as well keep going” – it’s easier to make those same allowances tomorrow. And the day after that.
When we sell out our Present Self, we’re selling out our Future Self, too. Click To Tweet
How to Strengthen Your Good Habit Muscle
All this sounds rather dramatic and dire, doesn’t it? But you can strengthen your good habit muscle if you just shift your mindset a few inches to the left.
View today’s behavior
a) a placeholder for future behavior
b) a gift to your Future Self
Often, the maintenance + momentum of the habit is almost more important than the habit itself! (If you’ve watched 5 Reasons Your Good Habits Don’t Stick, you know all about Bookmark Habits!)
When I’m feeling grumpy about my good habits and I’m reluctant to walk the dog or brush my teeth, I actually find it incredibly motivating to think “Ya know what? I’m just going to do this so it’s easier tomorrow.”
It’s not that you’re so excited about going to the gym at 6 am. It’s that if you don’t, you’re sort of losing your place in the habit line. And it’s a lot less likely that your Future Self will go.
Instead of obsessing over progress – how many pull ups we can do, how much money we’ve saved, how many new clients we’ve landed – we can just commit to the process.
It’s weirdly freeing to sort of shrug and say “Eh, I’m just doing this because if I don’t, I’ll forget about it next time.”
It removes the pressure to perform perfectly. It’s no longer about wearing the cutest outfit at the gym or sending the world’s most perfect, more thoughtful birthday card.
It’s just about, uh, not forgetting, holding your place in the habit line, and slooooowly strengthening your habit muscle through daily use.
But I want to hear from you! Do you notice yourself making excuses about not sticking to your habits? How do you strengthen your good habit muscle? Tell us in the comments so we can learn from you!
P.S. If you’re not sure which habits make you happy, this will help! And it’s free!
* Just quietly, the 21-days-to-a-new-habit things is total nonsense. Every habit and every human is different. Psychologists say that it takes most people 66 days to change a habit and it can vary from 12 days to 256!
Photos by Jared Rice and Matheus Ferrero on Unsplash