So often, we make the mistake of believing that sticking to good habits is an all-or-nothing game. (I say “we” because I've been there before as well.)
- We assume that if we slip up on our diet, then we have ruined the whole thing.
- We act like missing one day of writing means we simply weren't meant to be a writer.
- We use our lack of motivation to work out as evidence that we don't have the willpower to make change happen.
These beliefs are incorrect. Habits are behaviors that we repeat consistently. However, they are not behaviors that we repeat perfectly. This small idea—that consistency does not require perfection—is important.
When it comes to building good habits and breaking bad habits, individual mistakes do not matter in the long-run. Instead, it is the second mistake that is far more important. Let's talk about why this is true.
The Second Mistake
According to a study published in the European Journal of Social Psychology, missing any single day of a particular habit has no impact on your long-term ability to stick to the habit. It doesn't matter when it occurs, making a mistake and slipping up does not alter the long-term outcome… if you find a way to get back on track.
Furthermore, top performers in all fields make mistakes all the time. Athletes skip workouts. CEOs forget to meditate. Nutritionists eat unhealthy meals. Artists loaf around in bed all day and ignore their craft. These people are human, just like you and me. There are many points during their careers when they make a mistake, skip a session, and approach their tasks with the enthusiasm of sleep-deprived manatee.
What separates the elite performers from everyone else? Not perfection, but consistency. This is why the most important thing is not to prevent mistakes altogether, but to avoid making a mistake twice in a row. Errors are part of the process, but they shouldn't become part of the pattern.
One mistake is just an outlier. Two mistakes is the beginning of a pattern. Killing this pattern before it snowballs into something bigger is one reason why learning how to get back on track quickly is an essential skill for building good habits.
How to Get Back on Track
Here are some of my favorite strategies for getting back on track quickly and avoiding repeated mistakes.
Put all of your energy toward starting the good behavior. If you make a mistake or forget to practice a new habit, it can be easy to convince yourself that you need to do twice as much work to make up for it next time. This approach has never worked well for me. I find it more useful to release the focus on results and direct your energy toward getting started. Don't worry about having a fantastic performance next time. Just focus on getting back into the swing of things. I like to use The 2-Minute Rule to help me start behaviors easily.
Set a schedule for your habits. Many people never get around to building new habits because they are always wondering when they will be motivated to do the new habit. Take motivation out of the equation and set a schedule for your behavior. Without question, setting a publishing schedule for my writing has been the biggest win for my creative habits. Why does this work? Because of the science of implementation intentions.
Eliminate the things that take you off track. Some emergencies can't be avoided, but there are many daily distractions that can be eliminated. If you find yourself missing a habit, then take a moment to determine why that happened today. There is no need to judge yourself. Just examine your day with open eyes and determine what took you off course. Once you begin to discover the things that take you off course, you can eliminate them whenever possible. Improve by subtracting. It is much easier to make the right decision if you are surrounded by better choices.
If you want more practical ideas for breaking bad habits and creating good habits, check out my book Atomic Habits, which will show you how small changes in habits can lead to remarkable results.