How to Build New Good Habits That Will Actually Last
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“The first mistake is never the one that ruins you. It is the spiral of repeated mistakes that follows.” — James Clear
I have a confession to make…
A couple of days ago, I wrote an article describing the four things to avoid immediately after waking up.
After significant research and months of personal experimentation, I uncovered a few morning activities that have wrecked my productivity.
In the article, I detailed things to avoid and four alternative activities that will positively impact the rest of the day. Not only did I speak from personal experience, but I also backed my claims up with some hard science.
The article was thoughtful, helpful, and authentic. Or so I thought.
For the Past Week, I’ve Been Off the Wagon
Leading up to Thanksgiving, I took a few days off from work, and my routine turned to complete shit.
I slept in and snoozed my alarm at least three times per day. The first thing I did when I finally woke up was to grab my iPhone. And instead of being grateful for another day of life, I was stressed and strung-out within minutes of waking up.
I felt like crap, and my poor habits were piling it on.
There’s no if, and’s, or but’s about it:
I was a hypocrite and wasn’t even following the advice that I was dishing out.
Who are you to be offering advice? You can’t even follow it yourself.
I was really down on myself. After falling off the wagon, I picked up all the bad habits I was recommending others to avoid.
Things were spiraling out of control.
In a depression-fueled Instagram binge, I stumbled upon my guiding light.
James Clear, the author of the #1 New York Times bestseller, Atomic Habits, shared an excerpt from his book on Instagram that monumentally shifted my perspective and pulled me from the depths of my anguish.
“The first mistake is never the one that ruins you. It is the spiral of repeated mistakes that follows. Missing once is an accident. Missing twice is the start of a new habit.”
I let that sink in for a minute. The words bounced around in my head like a pinball machine: “Missing once is an accident. Missing twice is the start of a new habit.”
Suddenly I didn’t feel so shitty anymore.
Sure, I had completely fallen off the wagon and picked up some bad habits in the process. But despite my disorientation, I understood one vital aspect of what James was trying to say:
The strategy works both ways.
Hitting once is an accident. Hitting twice is the start of a new habit.
The first day of a good habit is never the one that sticks. It’s the spiral of repeated days that keeps you going.
All I needed to do was focus on one day at a time, stacking each on top of the next.
If I could manage to break my bad habits for just one day, I’d be on the road to mastering my habits once again.
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How to Replace Bad Habits With Better Ones
The process of getting back into the groove with good habits is quite simple, though it does require effort and some intentional action.
1. Falling Off the Wagon is a Mistake, Not a Habit
Everyone falls off the wagon at one point or another. It’s going to happen whether you like it or not. You can’t be perfect 100% of the time.
The key then, is being able to recognize that you’re off track and then finding the resolve to get back on.
Once you realized that a change is required, remember that falling off the wagon is a mistake, not a habit.
Making a change is possible. No matter how long you’ve been off track, you are capable of getting back on. The sooner you believe it, the sooner you’ll be back to crushing your habits once again.
I first realized I needed to make a change about three days after Thanksgiving. After nearly three months of consistently getting up at 5:30 am, I took a few days off for the holiday and found myself waking up at 8, 9, and even 10 am.
When work started up again, I could barely get out of bed. I’d snooze my alarm so many times that when I finally did get out of bed, I had 5 minutes to shower, brush my teeth, and get dressed.
I knew I needed to make a change. I knew I had picked up some bad habits and needed to get back on track — crushing the good habits that I once was.
2. Use the Brick by Brick Strategy to Stack Your Way Back
Have you ever been so motivated to do something — for example, running — that you make a massive proclamation without ample preparation?
“I’m going to run 5 miles every day for the next three months!”
Maybe you stick with it for a day, or even a few, but eventually, it’s too much. A week later, you find yourself back to where you started, not exercising but wishing you had.
In order to make a lasting change, you have to build to it slowly.
You can’t expect to be able to do something overnight just because you once were able to do it.
Going from 0 to 100 is incredibly difficult. But going from 0 to 25, then 25 to 50, then 50 to 100 is much more comfortable.
So what’s the moral of the story?
The key to getting back to your good habits is to slowly build there, brick by brick. You can’t make an overhauling change overnight and expect yourself to stick with it.
Making an overnight transformational change is incredibly difficult and not sustainable.
However, you can make change much more manageable by allowing yourself time to build to where you want to be — slowly stacking brick by brick. As habit development expert and author, S.J. Scott, once said:
“To make a permanent change, simply focus on the daily, incremental improvements.”
When I first realized that I needed to make a change, I hadn’t woken up at 5:30 am in more than a week and a half. Thinking I could jump right back into it, I foolishly set my alarm as I usually do on a work night.
The next morning, without thinking, I reached over and snoozed my alarm. The next thing I knew was 7:55 am, and I had 5 minutes to get ready for work.
The next night, I decided to use the brick by brick strategy and slightly lowered my expectations to give myself a fighting chance. I set my alarm for 6:30 am and found it significantly easier to wake up.
Since then, I’ve been consistently getting up at 6:30 am. Once that wake-up time is comfortable and easy (hopefully early next week), I’ll move my alarm back an hour to the original 5:30 am.
The key is to work your way back. Don’t expect because you once were able to do it that you’ll be able to once again do it overnight. Change takes time, just as it does to build a new habit.
Falling off the wagon is a part of life. Please don’t beat yourself up over it.
Treat it as it is — a mistake. Recognize that it’s bound to happen. Accept it. And then use the brick by brick strategy to work your way back to where you were slowly.
It’s not going to happen overnight, but by slowly building your way back, you’ll make a sustainable change that will actually last.