In 2008, I signed my first book deal and hunkered down to write what would end up as my first print book, The Power of Less. It started off fairly well, with me outlining the book quickly and writing on a regular basis. I was happy and felt great about my anti-procrastination writing abilities.
Then the plans got derailed when Eva and I had our second wedding (this time in church) and went on our honeymoon in Thailand. It was a breathtaking trip, but the writing I’d planned on getting done didn’t go as I’d imagined. My plan was to get a bunch of writing done in the early mornings, but I have no idea what I was thinking. It just didn’t happen.
It actually made me feel pretty bad during parts of our honeymoon, as I kept putting off the writing to be present with my honey, and enjoy our vacation in a beautiful new country. This went on for almost three weeks: putting off writing, enjoying the trip, but feeling bad about myself.
When I got back from the trip, I was tired and I’d missed the kids so I wanted to spend time with them … and I kept putting off the writing. I still felt really bad about my procrastination, and my self-image as a disciplined writer was shattered. I felt guilt, I felt a lack of self-control, and I avoided all these bad feelings by continuing to avoid writing.
Why we get derailed
This process of getting derailed from my good habits and routines has happened a bunch of times for me, and it’s one of the most common habit problems of the thousands of people I’ve coached.
The most common reasons we get derailed from habits:
- Busyness with work.
- Family crisis.
- Exhaustion or lack of sleep.
- We forget (if the habit is still young).
- Procrastination or distraction.
This happens to everyone at some point or another. But why? Because plans are just ideals, not reality. Because we’re overly optimistic about how much we can do, and in reality we can usually only do about 20 percent of that. Because things change, and yet we expect habit plans to stay the same, and we feel bad about it.
And because once we get a little derailed due to a change, we feel bad about that and then are actually less likely to get back on track.
Water vs. train tracks
The problem is that we see these habit plans as train tracks: we are the train, and we’ve laid out a track (the Habit Plan), and we expect things to go smoothly as we ride nicely along the track. Unfortunately, if the tracks get bent, we go off the rails and crash. This is a bad model for habits, or plans or expectations in general.
So what’s a better model than train tracks? The flow of water.
Let’s say water is running down a hill (because of, you know, gravity) … and it encounters a rock in its path. Does the water get thrown off its path and crash, never to recover? No. The water flows around the rock, as if it had planned that all along. It finds a new path, and when it hits a tree, it flows around that, and then it flows around a little hill, never flinching or pausing to bemoan its fate.
We need to be like that water. Flow, adjust, find a new path as the landscape changes. Plans are just directions, not tracks. We are going in that direction, and we’ll be damned if we’re going to be stopped by a little bump in the road.
What this means in practice is that if you get derailed for some reason … well, don’t say you’re “derailed.” Say you’re “reflowing.” Notice that things have changed since you made your plans, forget about the original plan, and adjust what you do based on the new landscape.
That means if travel stops your exercise habit, don’t feel bad. Adjust by finding a new kind of workout you can do anywhere and make time to do it before you go out of the hotel room for the day.
If sickness stops you from doing your writing, that’s OK. Focus on getting better, because that’s your priority at the moment, and then when you feel better, adjust by making a new writing Habit Plan.
You might also reassess whether you want to be doing the habit at this time, given what has changed, what your priorities are at the moment. If you are on your honeymoon, and you decide it’s more important to be with your honey than stick to your book-writing plan, perhaps it’s time to assess whether the writing on your trip was a good idea in the first place.
Take disruptions in stride and adjust as you go along. This is an amazing skill that will help you from getting derailed by an interruption.
Mission: Make a flow plan
Take a moment to consider whether you’ve gotten disrupted from your current habit yet. If so, what can you do to flow around this disruption? What can you do to adjust your plan to the new circumstances? If you haven’t been disrupted yet, think about the things on the list above that are most likely to disrupt you in the near future. What can you do to adjust if one of those things happens? Start adopting a flow mentality today.