Recently, one of my friends commented that he was a regular gym-goer. Except he hadn’t been to the gym in three months. Before that point, he had been exercising regularly. A few days off turns into a few weeks and soon enough, it’s been three months. Once you’ve fallen off the wagon, it isn’t always easy to get back on.
I’m sure most of us have had a similar experience to my friend. I know I have had many times where I’ve set a habit in place and later slipped. A few years ago, I used to have a highly efficient system for handling all my web-usage. Over time, however, it started to degrade until I was checking my e-mail and stats a few times each day. Several months ago I took the effort to restart that habit and restore my e-mail productivity.
Why Do Your Habits Slip?
Maintaining habits is like maintaining a car. You might get a chip in your car’s paint. Initially, you might be too busy to worry about a small chip. But over time the environment erodes that paint surface, until it rusts and spreads. Given enough time, what started as a small chip might eat away the underlying metal.
Keeping your exercising, studying or work habits sharp also requires maintenance. The first chip in your habits might be a small setback. An injury forces you to rest from the gym for a week. A few late nights disrupt your sleep schedule. A vacation stops your productivity habits.
If you notice this chips early, fixing them is relatively simple. After regularly going to the gym for a few years, if I take a week off, I don’t need too much encouragement to head back. The longer you’ve conditioned a habit, the easier it is to restart after minor glitches.
But if small lapses turn into weeks and months, you might require more work to restart. If you get enough rust in your car, you may need to replace the metal foundation entirely.
How to Stay on That Wagon
If a habit is important to you, such as exercising, waking up early, daily studying, reading or productivity, monitor it. The goal isn’t to be completely perfect. 100% adherence to a schedule costs far too much to be worth maintaining. However, if you see yourself slipping, you can inject the habit into the next few days to stay on track.
A few ways to consider monitoring your habits:
- Daily Checklist. Benjamin Franklin famously kept a list of 13 virtues he wanted as habits. Every day he would see how he performed in those virtues. Keeping a checklist can give you a quick idea of how well you adhere to good habits.
- Mark Your Calendar. At the small gym I used to attend, the owner, Ed, kept a calendar. Ed would make a mark on the calendar for each day he went to the gym. This way, it was easy to see if there was a long stretch without going to the gym.
- Weekly/Monthly Reviews. If you are already a GTD fanatic, you probably have weekly reviews. These can be a perfect time to assess your habits to see whether you might be slipping.
If your habits are rusting constantly, you’ve probably bought a lemon. If you haven’t properly conditioned the habit and integrated it into your life, maintenance will be an uphill battle. Occasionally I do a bit of tweaking to make sure my morning ritual, exercise or reading stays focused. But if that took a great deal of energy, I’d have to consider starting from scratch.
How to Get Back on the Wagon
Even with a monitoring system like I’ve described, I still make slips. Nobody is perfect and the fact that one habit fails doesn’t mean your character is flawed and you’re undisciplined. Restarting a habit can require a bit more work than simple maintenance, but it is usually easier than starting from scratch.
If I’ve left a habit for more than a month, this is usually the process I go through to restore it:
- Set a New 30-Day Trial. Restart the conditioning by committing to your habit for the next thirty days. If you’ve done a 30DT for that habit before, this one should be easier, since you will know what to expect.
- Recheck my Monitoring System. Why didn’t my monitoring system catch this while it was slipping? Sometimes there is a genuine reason for the slip (e.g. quitting the gym for a few months due to an injury). But if there isn’t a clear reason for why my habit broke down, I consider refining my monitoring system so I can be alerted when slips occur in the future.
- Reduce Friction. Friction is little obstacles that keep your habit from running smoothly. If you want to wake up early, partying late with friends would create friction. If your gym requires a forty minute commute, that adds friction. If I’m restarting a habit, I look for ways to make it easier to run.
How to Get Back On… When the Wagon Is Out of Sight
If you let rust continue long enough, it can eat away the metal foundation. Similarly, if you let your habits degrade far enough, there might not be much left to salvage. If you’ve spent six months off your diet or have had a year of sloppy productivity habits, it’s probably better to start from scratch.
Complete restarting requires more than just a simple tune-up. Here’s what I suggest:
- Know Why It’s Broke Before You Try to Fix It. Sounds simple, but few people complete this step. When they keep slipping from their habits, they never ask themselves if the habit itself is broken. It doesn’t matter how hard I condition myself, I could never train my body to live without food. You might be trying a similarly impossible feat if your habit doesn’t fit into your life.
- Fix the Flaws Before You Restart. Once you’ve identified some of the flaws in your past habits, brainstorm for solutions. If you truly hate the gym, you might want to try a different form of exercise. If your diet makes you feel starved all the time, you might want to consider a different meal plan. Have a better strategy before you try to get back on the wagon.
- Overwhelming Force. Setting up another 30 Day Trial is a must. Even more, set up a trigger, schedule the habit for a consistent time, consider replacement theory and operant conditioning. Going overboard on your conditioning efforts can give you the momentum you need.
Needing to restart a habit isn’t a sign you’re lazy or that it’s impossible to change habits. Instead, work on building a monitoring system to keep your habits from slipping. If they do slip, try to correct the problem before it spreads. And if they keep slipping, consider restarting from scratch to debug major problems.