Avoid These 5 Traps that Can Destroy Your Good Habits.

Every Wednesday is List Day, or Tip Day, or Quiz Day.

Today: Avoid these five habit traps — they can destroy your good habits.

When we’re trying to master our habits, it’s important to be aware of the justifications or arguments that we sometimes invoke that interfere with keeping a good habit.

They slip in so easily and quickly, it can be hard to spot them. Be on the look-out for these five popular lines of thoughts:

1. Thinking, “Well, now that I’ve slipped up and broken my good habit, I might as well go all the way.”

I remind myself, “A stumble may prevent a fall.” Because of the colorfully named “what the hell” phenomenon, a minor stumble often becomes a major fall; once a good behavior is broken, we act as though it doesn’t matter whether it’s broken by a little or a lot. “I didn’t do any work this morning, so what the hell, I’ll take the rest of the week off and start on Monday.” “I missed my yoga class over spring break, so what the hell, I’ll start again in the fall.” It’s important to try to fail small, not big.

2. Thinking, “If I really beat myself up when I break a good habit, I’ll do a better job of sticking to it.”

Although some people assume that strong feelings of guilt or shame act as safeguards to help people stick to good habits, the opposite is true. People who feel less guilt and who show compassion toward themselves in the face of failure are better able to regain self-control, while people who feel deeply guilty and full of self-blame struggle more.

3. Thinking, “Sure, I’m not sticking to the habit that’s meant to keep me productive, but look how busy I am.”

Working is one of the most dangerous forms of procrastination.

4. Thinking, “Of course I usually stick to my good habits, but in this situation, I can’t be expected to keep it up.”

We’re all adults, and we can mindfully make exceptions to our good habits, but alas, everything counts.  Loopholes like “It’s my birthday,” “I’m sick,” “It’s the weekend,” “I deserve it,” “I’ve been so good,” “You only live once,” are loopholes, meant to excuse us from responsibility. But nothing’s off the grid. Nothing stays in Vegas.

5. Thinking, “I love my good habit so much, and I get so much satisfaction from it, that now it’s okay for me to break that habit.”

One danger point in habit-formation is the conviction that a habit has become so ingrained that we can safely violate it: “I love my morning writing sessions so much, I’d never give them up,” “I stopped eating cereal two years ago, so now it’s okay for me to eat it.” Unfortunately, even long-standing habits can be more fragile than they appear, so it pays not to get complacent.

What have I missed?

As I’ve mentioned before, my forthcoming book, Better Than Before, describes the multiple strategies we can exploit to change our habits. Habits–the most fascinating subject ever. To pre-order the book, click here. (Pre-orders give a real boost to a book, so if you’re inclined to buy the book, I really appreciate it if you pre-order it.)

  • Finding the balance between #1 and #2 will be a challenge! “Working is one of the most dangerous forms of procrastination” really interests me. Last year I decided that sleep counts as productivity 🙂 -Audrey | Brunch at Audrey’s

  • Gillian

    I think we have to ask when are these statements actually a trap or excuse and when are they perfectly acceptable reasons for breaking the habit. We have to decide in the beginning why we are forming the habit – what is the benefit, what is it costing? Then we have to determine how important consistency is, what the cost of inconsistency and lapses might be and how difficult it is to return to the habit after a lapse. Sometimes, taking a break from a habit can be very beneficial, allowing us to return to it with renewed resolve and motivation. Then again, we might decide that it wasn’t such a beneficial habit after all and decide to drop it. I think there is a lot of trial and error involved in habit formation.

    The Strategy of Scheduling can be very useful in this light. Not so much scheduling when you will follow the habit but when you will allow yourself a break or a treat and for how long.

  • mellen

    Very interesting conversation. We need to be ok with missing once, if that’s what happens (no guilt, no recrimination), but still determined to keep going. Let go of the past, embrace the present, let the future unfold.

  • Krithika Rangarajan

    Hey Gretchen

    Well, I have played with all these excuses before. I have been using the following excuses to avoid hitting the gym (I was advised not to workout for a month or two because of swollen legs. But those 60 days have turned into 120 days, and I have not stepped into the gym yet:)

    a. It breaks my heart to leave my puppy at home. He hates being alone: this one is my favorite and actually puts the onus on my 6-month cutie 😛

    b. It’s too cold: Okay, I have a phobia of driving in the snow, but even cold or minor flakes keep me inside

    Of course, I am still in recovery from Eating Disorders, so I do utilize No.1 a lot to ‘binge and purge’ 🙁 Gosh – I am ashamed, but it’s better to be honestly productive than dishonestly shameful 🙂

    Thanks for yet another thrilling post

  • Rita

    If you need a poster child for #1 – sadly, I am your girl! Glad to know it is ‘popular’ enough for you to write about it, and it’s not just me. Hoping your new book has some trick or two to help me change my mindset when I stumble, and pretty much talk myself into falling.
    So enjoy your blog! Like when I leave church, I always find that something inspired me or made me think; whether it was the music, or the service, or the person in front of me – so too with your blog, whether it’s in what you say, or who you interviewed, or a reader’s comment, there is always a great takeaway!

    • gretchenrubin

      Terrific – I hope that Better Than Before gives you some good suggestions —

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  • Laetitia

    I think the reason why those who feel really ashamed of failing struggle more (#2) is because people ultimately want to avoid unpleasant things so they figure that if they don’t attempt to create or maintain a new habit then they can’t fail by breaking it.

  • toddistark

    Hi Gretchen,

    If I understand these tips, you seem to be implying that perfect compliance with a habit is the most conducive strategy to long term persistence. Especially principle 4, which I’ll call your “zero tolerance” or “no excuses” principle. I understand the general idea that each deviation from a habit reflects a lapse in responsibility for maintaining that habit, but did you also mean to imply that even planned or controlled lapses in compliance are always destructive to maintaining the habit in the long run?

    If so, I’m curious, what line of evidence supports the principle that sticking to a habit without ever deviating from it leads to better long term success? My intuition is that for a habit where we are continually pitting ourselves against determined resistance, occasionally deliberate breaks from the habit could potentially be beneficial.

    While consistency is an important driver of habit formation and maintenance, I’m not sure that extends to perfect compliance. And the principle that we shouldn’t beat ourselves up with recriminations and regrets over lapses (#2) seems difficult to reconcile in practice with the zero tolerance principle. Do you think my intuition is misleading me?

    • gretchenrubin

      I think it depends on the person.

      The key is to know what works for YOU.

      • toddistark

        Ok, yes, I’ve read through more of your materials and now I see you take a distinctive individual differences approach. Thanks very much.

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  • I should grab one one day!

  • sanchez

    Habits that sounds very easy! I will work more on them! great info!.