When I was developing my Four Tendencies framework – which divides people into the categories of Upholder, Questioner, Obliger, or Rebel — I often asked people, “How do you feel about New Year’s resolutions?”
I heard from a lot of people who said, “I hate New Year’s resolutions, because for so long I made them, but could never keep them.”
And certainly most people don’t manage to keep their New Year’s resolutions — four out of five people break their resolutions, and a third don’t make it until the end of January.
But that doesn’t make it any less frustrating to try and fail with an important resolution.
In my book Better Than Before, I describe the multiple strategies we can exploit to change our habits — which matters for New Year’s resolutions, because just about every New Year’s resolution involves a habit change.
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 — which slip in, and sabotage our efforts to keep our resolutions:
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. 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.” Or a gambler is so anxious about money that he goes gambling to cheer up. This is the cruel poetic justice of bad habits.
3. Thinking, “Sure, I’m not sticking to the habit that’s meant to keep me productive, but look how busy I am.”
If you’re trying to accomplish something important, set aside some specific time to do it, and don’t fritter away that time by answering emails, clearing out papers, or my personal favorite, doing “research.”
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. 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! There are ten categories of loopholes. One for every possible occasion.
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.