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!
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. The LIVE version of Make It Stick Habit School opens for enrollment on January 6th – click here to get on the wait list!
* 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
This speaks to me so loudly right now, because I just broke my no-binging habit I’ve been holding for a few weeks now! I feel so ashamed, sigh… I always make excuses for myself despite knowing the outcomes. Time to try again. 🙂
Charmaine Ng | Architecture & Lifestyle Blog
“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.” So much of this.
And I would add: don’t make the process overwhelming. I found that if I said to myself, you’re going to do this for the next 365 days, I often don’t pass the 10 day mark. But if I phrase it as a 30 day challenge to which I HAVE THE CHOICE to add 30 more days every time I reach it, I’m more likely to stick to it long term. And even turn it into a habit. Slow and steady wins the race, and all that jazz.
Yes! It’s a strange parallel to draw, but I think the AA motto of “one day at a time” is really helpful when it comes to habit change. Just do it TODAY and deal with tomorrow when it gets here <3
I think alcoholism definitely fits this model! Relapse starts with this mental justification… it’s a special occasion, I’ll just have one drink, whatever. Then away it goes.
Yes, really resonated with that statement too!
It’s funny, I’m doing a new exercise program that’s SUPER hard but has great results, and often, if I’m mid-workout and not wanting to continue, I will literally say to my cat, “This is really hard and I don’t wanna!” And then I do it anyway. Just voicing the feelings, giving them airtime, makes it easier to just coexist with them and do it anyway. It almost makes it funny. “Wow, this sucks!” (pushup pushup pushup) Totally co-signed on this!
Yes! Just admitting it sucks and you’re not that pumped is a huge relief!
Haha Maggie I do the exact same thing, it’s oddly one of the most motivational things for me! For me I think it’s because 1) I make myself laugh and take the whole thing less seriously and 2) it’s recognizing that just because it’s hard and it sucks doesn’t mean I shouldn’t do it.
Three days ago, I cancelled my gym membership at my Far-Away Gym and started a new one at Much-Closer Gym. This is my chance to start going to the gym iN tHe MoRniNg. The hurdle I have to jump is three fold: change into gym clothes, drive to the gym, and wake up 90minutes earlier than normal.
Sarah, you get me thinking that the best way to make this easier is to start just driving to the gym in the morning. What if I don’t put pressure on myself to workout the first couple days, and I just focus on getting there and back before I work?
Yes! Build the muscle of driving there! Maybe get in the habit of checking … but go sit in the sauna!
I am very much the same way – I just need to get there! I keep my gym bag packed and ready to go in my car so that when I do make it to the gym I usually can convince myself, welp, since I’m here I might as well go inside… well since I am inside with my clothes I might as well change… I might as well just do 10 minutes on the treadmill…. and then bam! I’ve done a workout, I feel great, it’s 7:30am and the most difficult part of my day is already done – win!
I am an approval junkie, and I have found my best app ever – it’s called Loop Habit Tracker (and no, it’s not mine, and yes, it’s free). You put in what you want to do, how many times you want to do it, when you should get a reminder on your phone and voila: you’ve got a habit assistant. Then every time you do it, you get a checkmark and your score improves. And every time you skip it, your score dips a bit (but you can recover – it’s a weird smart algorithm thing, not just a +1/-1 situation).
So here I am, with a 97% in Meditation (after 63 straight days!), and a 41% in Couch to 5K (just done week 3!). I’m finally brushing my teeth in the morning like a civilized member of society (88%!) and practicing my ukulele I picked up in January (75%). Yes, I’m a Lisa Simpson grade dork, but it has helped me stick to stuff a LOT. It drives home that doing it is all that counts, every time. I count every effort – 1 min of mediation counts. 1 song of music.
Anna, I just looked for that app (on my iPhone, in Canada), and wasn’t able to find it? Did anyone else have troubles finding this app? Any suggestions? Maybe its only available in the States?
I also use Loop Habit Tracker 😀 And my 236-days-streak of going outside once a day (even if it’s just to take out the trash) looks pretty impressive by now! Or my 122-days-streak of flossing (which is also my 122-days-streak of being single… but that’s another story).
Lisa Simpson grade dork high-five!
@Jess: I live in Germany and it’s available, too. They translated it to “Loop Gewohnheiten”, so maybe try just searching for “Loop” or “Loop [insert French word for habit]”?
I’m on an Android in Canada. For iPhone I’d try one of these:
It’s months later and the few seconds it takes to track my habits has me still doing them. I’ve even dropped tracking some because they are truly habits now – effortless.
Sarah, I just love your newsletters so much! Some of the few I actually look forward to!
Re habits, I started running for the first time ever, following a Couch to 5k podcast. For me, it’s all about not breaking the chain. I hate running, but the fact that I did it each day without interruptions is the best feel good thing ever. Better than the running itself. And if I break the chain for some reason, I want to see how long can i make it the next time, can I make it longer? No guilt, just a bit of competition.
This was probably the exact opposite of what you were going for, but for me it’s like the ultimate perfectionist fear cycle – you miss a day and you’re screwed. There is no such thing as just this once. So why do I even try, when I know from experience that I WILL miss a day and ruin it all. Surprised I’m the only one. (sorry. Still love you tho!)
you are definitely not the only one! I can’t fill out habit trackers because as soon as I miss one day, I get so upset with myself! Strangely though, this article still gave me comfort. I usually think “I must go to the gym have SUPER intense work out, then do x, then do y, then do z”, but now I’m trying to embrace “just go to the gym” not needing the extra stuff every day.
Also Sarah I have to say, I follow a lot of blogs (and love them dearly), but your articles/posts are some of the few that stick with me for days or even weeks as I ponder how they fit into my life. I absolutely love them!
Oh, thank you so much, Olivia! That really means a lot!
This came at just the right time for me Sarah! I made a calculated decision to skip my daily gym routine the past two days in favour of pushing to get a work project done. Today it was SO HARD to go back! But I talked myself into it by saying “hey, this’ll just make it easier to go again tomorrow.” Thank you <3
Thank you Sarah! This is a trap I fall into time and time again – but now I know what to do about it. Thank you!
So much YES. Forming a habit is so much more about showing up and doing the thing *regualrly* than doing it *intensly*.
When I started running in earnest in 2016, my goal was to go running every other day during Lent. It did not matter for how long, just the fact that I put on my running shoes and went outside counted. In the beginning it was just five minutes and it was fine. But sure enough, after a week or two I was going for ten minutes… then fifteen… and then five again because I was on my period. But it didn’t matter because my commitment was just for “go running”, not for a specific time or distance. That way I was able to keep my momentum even while feeling crappy and in the end IT MADE ALL THE DIFFERENCE.
Love this. Also – MINI GOALS! I once read that the key to sticking with things is to do them every day and to make your goals tiny. Like – rather than “write for 30 minutes” the goal would be “write one sentence.” Because of course once you write one sentence you keep going, and it isn’t so much the doing that is hard, but the beginning.
i love the idea of committing to the process rather than thinking about progress. just doing it really is the key.
It is true… especially with the hard habits like going to the gym! I can so easily talk myself out of it… or I go there and get on the treadmill and decide to just to do a light workout. I’m going to be better, I swear!
Fantastic post Sarah!
I actually read in The ONE Thing by Gary Keller that the amount of days to keep a habit is around 66 (I believe that’s what he said in his book – give or take a day or two :p)
Something I’ve learned to be very important and valuable that’s helped me keep my new habits in place:
The Compound Effect by Darren Hardy explains that if you do tiny actions every single day, you will get somewhere, and it wont’ be nearly as painful as trying to push yourself to change everything all at once.
James Altruiter also wrote a book that explained his secret to habit keeping is to make the habit so so tiny that it’s silly not to do it.
For example: 10 jumping jacks.
Seems silly not to do 10 of those each day!
But overall, with the compound effect and continual action, it will make a difference!