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For Better Habits, Just Don’t Fail Twice In A Row

The gist: Everyone who succeeds (or fails) at building a habit or routine has setbacks along the way. But those who succeed don’t allow failures to compound.

Building a new habit is hard work. You set out with the best of intentions, you make a plan, and you try to set yourself up for success.

At first, everything is great. You feel like you’re on top of the world. You’re motivated, you’re succeeding, and you can see how this new endeavor will change the way you live.

Then, without fail, something gets in the way.

  • Work gets busy.
  • You have a family emergency.
  • You have to take your dog to the vet.

You reach a breaking point and make a mistake. You slip.

The fact you slipped is not important. But what happens next is.

After looking at dozens of cases of my own and those close to me, I’ve learned that people who succeed at building habits and people who don’t experience the same failures and disappointments along the way. The difference seems to be what they do immediately after a setback.

Image courtesy of Michael Himbeault
Image courtesy of Michael Himbeault

Inconsistent Consistency: How I Built The Habit Of Running

I’m always on the hunt for small changes to my routine—changes that will help me stick to the things I say are important to me. Over the years, I’ve failed at many new habits and routines but, somehow, the habit of running has stuck.

After many years—and even a marathon on every continent—it’s easier for me to get up in the morning and go for a run than it is to plop down on the couch. The habit is deeply ingrained.

When I try to start a new habit—building better relationships was a recent one—I look to my  running habit for inspiration and ask, “How can I copy that formula for this new routine?” And, of course, the answer is always, “Do it for years and it’ll become easy.”

But the truth is, I have’t been perfectly faithful to my running routine.

Since 2008, my goal has been to run five miles each day for three days each week. Adding up the mileage from my running logs, I’m pretty close to the goal. But I’ve missed plenty of days.

But what’s curious is that I’ve rarely missed two running days in a row.

Habits are a complex thing, and I don’t claim to have all the answers, but I believe this is a big part of what accounts for success: never failing twice in a row.

Forget Perfection, Just Don’t Fail Twice In A Row

If you compare your successful habits to the ones you’ve struggled with, you’ll likely find the times you’ve stumbled and veered off track are about the same. The big difference will be in how those stumbles line up over time.

If you commit to trying something new and forgiving yourself when you make a mistake, you’ll see that when you mess up, you get right back to work. When it happens again, you do the same. Over time, you’re failures become fewer and further between.

But when you force yourself to be perfect from the outset, it’s easy to lose motivation after just one stumble. One leads to two. Two leads to three. Pretty soon, you’ve given up entirely. The longer you veer off track, the easier it becomes to stay there.

It’s not just getting up when you get knocked down. It’s how fast you get back up.

So, when it comes to building a new habit—one you really want to stick to—you should concern yourself less with screwing up a lot. You’re allowed to screw up, and it’s bound to happen. What you should really concern yourself with is not screwing up twice in a row.

  • Want to learn a new instrument? Commit to practicing three times each week, and never miss two sessions in a row.
  • Want to actually go to the gym? Set a schedule, and actually go. Don’t beat yourself up when you miss a day. Just get up and go again.
  • Want to eat healthy? Create a new meal plan for yourself. Enjoy the nachos and beer when you slip, just don’t have them for lunch and dinner.

The path to failure is littered with small stumbles. But so is the path to success. The difference is how many you allow to stack up in the same place.