Trying to Change a Habit? Beware These 5 Traps.

Today is Tip Day: Avoid five habit traps that can destroy your good habits.

In my book Better Than Before, I describe the multiple strategies we can exploit to change our habits. Habits — the most fascinating subject ever.

One thing I observed is that 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. “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. “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. Often, when we feel bad about breaking a good habit, we try to make ourselves feel better by — indulging in the bad habit! A woman told me, “I felt so bad about breaking my diet that I ate three orders of french fries.” This is the cruel poetic justice of bad habits.

3.  “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. “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.  Justifications 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.

I love all the strategies in Better Than Before, they’re all powerful and fascinating, but I especially loved writing the chapter on the hilarious Strategy of Loophole-Spotting. We’re so ingenious of thinking of loopholes for ourselves!

5.  “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? What traps catch you, when you’re trying to keep a good habit?

  • “Unfortunately, even long-standing habits can be more fragile than they appear, so it pays not to get complacent.”

    I worked for 8 years to the west of where I lived. Every morning, five days a week, I’d go to the freeway and turn right. A year ago I started a job to the east. Now when I get to the freeway I turn left.

    If I’m distracted or zoned out when I get to the freeway, it’s still about a 50/50 chance I’m going to turn right. Last time I did it, I was 15 minutes along before I realized I was going the wrong way.

  • When I fail, I tend to fail hard. I love your advice to “try to fail small, not big.” I think that’s why the swing from weight loss in a diet swings to higher than the amount of weight lost.

  • Judi Von Fange Partlo

    My biggest trap tends to be making excuses when I travel that I don’t have the opportunity or means to continue my habit. It definitely is more challenging to keep up, whether it’s exercising, eating healthy, sleeping more, etc but I don’t want to have to keep starting over!

  • HelsBels

    I am really trying to work on this right now as I have a habit of fiddling with my hair and pulling it out when I am bored/anxious/stressed etc. I have given it up with hypnotherapy in the past and with will power and self belief etc but then, out of the blue yesterday I started again. I am reading and re-reading this post as a reminder that ‘a stumble isn’t yet a fall’ – I paraphrase!

    Good luck to anyone else struggling with ‘falling off the wagon’.

    • Thalia Ash

      I have the same problem!!! SO nice to know I’m and that I’m also using Gretchen’s advice to break it. Good luck!

  • Anna

    For me, it works to be kind to myself when I break a habit – for example, I have just had several days of friends staying at my house, and then priority goes to their well-being and making the most of time spent together. It doesn’t help to beat myself up over missed habits during the visit, as it would only stress me out. Now they have left, I gently persuade myself back into the habits by concentrating on the good outcome each habit carries with it. It works, I never drop out more seriously. But then, I am a Moderator, and I think this also helps in the area of sticking to habits (i.e. not being completely radical).

  • Anne

    I definitely have a problem once I’ve broken a good habit thinking, “today’s a waste, I might as well now go all the way.” I think that abstainers may struggle with this thinking more than moderators. Yesterday with my sisters I went to breakfast and had pancakes and bacon; after that I just wanted to eat unhealthy food all day! My sisters had the feeling, “now we’ve indulged, we feel like eating salad.” This is the reason that the hours from 7-9 am are so important in my day. If I eat a healthy breakfast and get started on my work, chances are the rest of the day will follow suit. I need to get better at not letting it derail the whole day if for whatever reason I don’t begin on a perfect note.

  • I am so guilty of many of these. I especially love the one on failing hard. I tend to just go all the way and try to make up for lost time afterwards. I will definitely be thinking to fail small from now on. great article.

  • Dianne Ochiltree

    #3 really resonates. Yes, indeed, there’s always something to fill the time. And much of it is good to do. But does it move you toward your goal? That’s very hard for me to surmount. I will keep busy with other things all day long in order to not do the thing that makes me nervous about my ability to do it. But that’s the very thing that must be done to make something important happen.

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  • Adeel

    i LOVE YOUR TOPIC KEEP UP THE GOOD WORK AND KEEP BRINGING SMILES ON FACES OF MILLIONS 🙂

  • Adeel

    If you are happy every thing goes well, you are motivated and see good things around 🙂