Failure is Inevitable, Quitting is Not: 3 Surprising Tips for Starting a New Habit
We’re early into February, which means most people are pretending they never made that New Year’s Resolution as they sit on the couch Netflix-ing.
I don’t have a TV but I have my own vegetable-based avoidant behaviors and they have shown their faces more than once during this month. Despite their pull, I have continued to work with my drinking-in-moderation and meditation goals. I would put myself at 80% successful so far and building steam — despite my two business trips (changes to routine and increased stress are serious suck-points for integrating new habits).
One was an abject failure because I was in wine country and my Airbnb host kindly left me a box of fresh scones. I started strong by hiding them in a drawer so I mostly forgot about them. Then, on my last night after a stressful morning and non-moderate wine tasting afternoon, with no one watching…at least I didn’t eat all four of them!
Rather than beat myself up, I got back on my feet. For all the extra drinks I had, I went a day on the wagon. I got back to regular meditation and the stress eating subsided. I also acknowledged that I broke only after a ton of temptation, pressure and stress. Of course I broke! I was disappointed but did not enter a shame spiral. I made a commitment to myself that the next time I get an Airbnb, I will let the host know, no treats please!
If you fail — don’t quit! Re-strategize! Take a page from the addicts’ book. Relapse will happen. Your old habit is strong and your new one will take time to develop. Give that baby a chance to grow. Plan for falling off the horse and what you will do to get back up on it.
Tip #1: Develop a game plan for failures from the start
Bonus tip: Leave judgment behind. Kelly McGonigal says in The Willpower Instinct (yes I know I write about this book in every post — read it already!) that the emotional drama of judging yourself just depletes your willpower energy that much more. It is a waste of time and energy. Everyone fails under the right circumstances. Get over it.
Genius is Not in Coming to the Conclusion but in Enacting the Conclusion
The single most important thing I’ve done to improve my life across the board is give myself permission for down time and SCHEDULE it!
New habits take a boatload of willpower. Without lots of downtime, the lizard brain is in charge and it’s scones and wine for you! Previously in my life, I would metaphorically run a marathon and wonder why I had no energy to do a hill workout right after I crossed the finish line.
I would work my arse off all day and come home expecting to have a cup of tea and eat a salad and wonder how I ended up with a basket of wings and tumbler of whiskey in front of me. When did this happen? Why am I so weak? I don’t like me. Shaaaaaaaaame spiral!
Now I work a little and then meditate. I take a lunch. I schedule a walk with coworkers. When something stressful happens (even good stress), I skip my next work task and do a restorative behavior. I have chunks of work time that I block off each week that I call “flex blocks.” Unexpected things happen EVERY week so why do I seem to think next week will be different?
I learned my lesson and now I CAN move a project or task to later in the week because I have that protected time. Not rocket science to figure out. Much harder to actually plan for and stick to.
Tip #2: Scheduled and protected down time is a superpower
Putting the Dope in Dopamine
I’m re-reading the book, The Power of Habit by Charles Duhigg. In it, he talks about keystone habits. Those are the habits that, if you adopt them, seem to lead to additional habit changes. In the book, he says he doesn’t know why but I’m pretty sure I do…or at least partly.
For all the examples he gives of keystone habits, they have two things in common — they are awareness-building habits and they are frequent and small. They allow for lots of quick wins in a brief period. Short wins in quick sequence lend themselves to a dopamine boost for achievement and positive reinforcement for doing the next one. Once the habit reinforces itself, things are going to snowball.
My life has gotten a lot better since I made a bunch of changes that I summarized in this post. One of the big things I did to make these changes was a variety of micro-journaling and mood-monitoring activities. I did these multiple times a day. They were easy. They created a sense of accomplishment. They put the dope in dopamine. They started my snowball.
Here’s what else.
Kelly McGonigal also references the muscle model of willpower. Stress it to build it but it needs recovery time to grow stronger.
Well what else was I doing with those habits? I was flexing and building my willpower muscles. That means that I was getting stronger and it would take longer to deplete my willpower. I began doing more of the things we all know are good for us (exercise, meditation, cooking whole foods meals, etc.) and less of the things we all know are bad for us (couch-potato-ing, drinking, bad foods).
Let’s bring it all together. If you want to change or set a habit, break it down into the smallest relevant micro-habit that has an awareness component and start there.
Here are some examples:
I want to stop eating sugar so I will make a note on my phone every time I crave sugar during the day. I will note the time and how intense the craving is on a scale of 1–10. That’s it. I’ll add other goals when I have this small habit locked in.
I want to be more active so I will text my BFF every day at noon and at 8pm how many steps I have on my step-counter. That’s it. I’ll add other goals when I have this small habit locked in.
I want to be more punctual. I will note every day how many meetings/events I have and how many I make it to on time. That’s it. I’ll add other goals when I have this small habit locked in.
Tip #3: Take your big habit change and find the smallest habit that builds awareness and is done frequently and start there
We can imagine being capable of so much more, so for some, this may seem ridiculous. But if you look at how most change happens, it’s not night and day. Smokers try multiple times to quit before succeeding. Athletes build their skills one practice at a time (and some practices they take a step back!). Toddlers — some of the FASTEST learners neurologically, fall down more often than they make it across the room.
Welcome to being human. Embrace it and give yourself a break already!