Not long ago I was coaching a woman who struggled to stick to any habit — I could definitely relate — and I was trying to understand the root of the problem. Sometimes she wouldn’t write back to me after failing, so I asked about this.
It turns out that what would happen is any time she would miss a day (often for a good reason), that would trigger a downward spiral. She would feel bad about missing a day, and those bad feelings would actually make it more likely that she’d miss a second day, and then she’d be even more likely to miss a third day. Eventually she was feeling so bad about it she wouldn’t even open my emails checking on her.
This downward spiral is what we want to avoid.
What finally worked was getting her to commit to some big, embarrassing consequence — not if she missed a day of the habit, but if she missed two days in a row.
Her rule was: it’s OK to miss one day, but never miss two days in a row.
And the corollary was: when you miss one day, do everything you can to figure out why you missed, and solve it so you don’t keep missing. Use the missed day as feedback that your habit method needs to be adjusted.
Mistakes as positive feedback
This idea of mistakes as feedback is a crucial lesson in creating habits. Visualize yourself crossing a shallow river, stepping across a path of large stones that someone has strung across the river. You have to step on one stone after another to get across.
Now picture closing your eyes and trying to get across. You take a step into the water by accident. At this point, you could beat yourself up about stepping in the water, and then keep going in the same direction until you’ve fallen into the water completely and are totally off the path.
That wouldn’t make any sense. It’s much better to stop going in that direction once you take the first step into water, and adjust. Get back on the path. Change direction. Use the water as feedback, not as a sign that you’re horrible and should get even wetter.
When you’re creating a new habit, you’re kind of like that — blindly crossing a river. You don’t know the optimal path, the best method for creating this habit. All you can do is take the first step, and then the next, and if you step into water (or miss a day of the habit), use that as feedback and adjust. Don’t keep going in the same way.
What does this mean for making changes?
- First, use mistakes as feedback. They’re not signs that you’re a bad person or have no discipline. They’re signs that you need to adjust.
- Figure out what caused the mistake and write down an adjustment to your plan. If the problem was travel, adjust the plan so you know what to do when you travel. If the problem was a change in your schedule, adjust the plan for that contingency. In this way, you’ll get better at the habit over time.
- Create a barrier for missing two days in a row, like an embarrassing consequence, so missing one day won’t be the end of the world, and you’ll be forced to adjust so you don’t keep missing days.
Create a positive feeling about change
Most of us do habits completely backwards: when we make a mistake, we feel bad about it. This bad feeling makes it much less likely that we’ll stick to the change, because now we feel guilty every time we even consider the habit. We feel like bad people.
We have to avoid this bad feeling, because it gets in the way of habit change. Consider popular phone apps that are addicting: social media and photo sharing apps. Every time you open them up, they give you a dose of pleasure, because you’re not bored anymore and you’re seeing something interesting, or someone likes your photo. Every time you use the app, you feel good.
Habits are often set up like a really bad app: if you make a mistake and miss a day or two, you start to feel bad every time you open up the habit app. It makes you feel like a bad person. That’s the opposite of what we want to get you to stick to the habit.
Instead, try to keep a positive mindset about the habit. Miss a day? No problem, learn from that and try not to miss a second day. Miss a week because of a family crisis? Great, this is a wonderful opportunity to learn how to get back on track after a disruption. See every mistake as an opportunity to learn, a thing that you can get better at, positive feedback that’s so crucial for improvement.
And smile as you open yourself up to this improvement.
Mission: Create a consequence for missing two days
Add to your plan an embarrassing consequence for missing two days in a row and commit to this with your accountability partner or team. If you do miss a day, quickly figure out what happened and establish a way to overcome that obstacle next time. Adjust your method so that it’s better. Write all of this down in your plan, and remember to see the misstep as good feedback for that crucial continual adjustment.