Backsliding can help you fine tune your routines

We’ve all been there. We make a resolution at the start of the year to change our behavior and current ways of doing things. Perhaps, we decide to exercise more, to stop smoking, or to become an unclutterer. And, we start seeing the results of our efforts, of our commitment to our new goals … then it happens. We backslide. We somehow fall off course, even though we may have earnestly given our new routine our best try.

Though you may feel disappointed and frustrated by this bump in the road, all is not lost. This is an opportunity in disguise, a chance to look back at what worked and what adjustments can be made. In other words, don’t give up. Instead, refine your plan so you have a greater chance of success when you begin again. Take some time to:

Investigate what happened

So, things didn’t work out. You could just accept that and wait for your disappointment to wear off. Or, you could try to figure out the reasons why things didn’t go as you intended.

When you look with an investigative eye, you focus on facts and less on how you (currently) feel. Ask yourself questions to drill down to the reasons that made it hard to stick to your new plan.

  • Did you take on too much at once?
  • Did you need more support?
  • Was your new routine too complex?
  • Were you feeling particularly stressed (or other emotion)?

By looking closely at the events that took place before the difficulties arose, you’ll have a better idea of the changes that you can make before trying again.

Consider that you may need more time

You might have heard that it typically takes at least 21 days for a new habit to stick. While there is some data that supports the theory that you can successfully make adjustments in about a month, the reality is that it takes most people 12 weeks or more. When you’ve been used to doing things a certain way for a while, changing that behavior probably will not happen quickly. Consider that you might need to give yourself more time to let your new routine become a natural part of your everyday life.

Charles Duhigg, author of The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business, in a recent interview with NPR, explained that “there’s a cue, or trigger, that tells your brain to go into automatic mode and let a behavior unfold.” This happens after you’ve become used to the new habit. While practice may not exactly make perfect, repetitive actions do increase your comfort level, so much so, that you won’t have to think about what you’re doing. The new behavior will become more instinctive, like brushing your teeth. With this in mind, give your attention to the new routine as often as is reasonable and for as long as you need to.

Redouble your efforts

Dust off your previous plans and analyze them and the process you used to integrate the new habit a bit more closely. To increase your chances of success this time around, here are a six points to think about:

  1. Disadvantages of the “bad” habit. Looking at the negative effects of your current behavior will remind you of why you wanted to make a change.
  2. Benefits of the new change. Thinking about the positive outcomes can be very motivating and will solidify why you made the decision to adjust your behavior.
  3. Complexity of the change. Keep things simple and focus on just one aspect of your life that you’d like to improve. Making realistic goals will prevent you from taking on too much and getting overwhelmed.
  4. Ups and downs of the process. Hiccups will happen. That’s unavoidable, particularly until your comfort level with the new habit increases. Expect that things may be a bit tricky, especially in the beginning, but don’t let this discourage you.
  5. Strategies you’ll use. Continue using tactics that worked and remove the ones that didn’t. Instead of looking for significant change after 21 days, use that timeframe as a “pausing point” to assess where you are and check that you’re still on the right path.
  6. Visualize what success looks like. How will you know when you’ve made it over the hump? What will that look and feel like? Write out or sketch your success picture. Post it somewhere visible to inspire and remind you of what you’re working toward.

As I mentioned before, there is no one way to make improvements that will work for every personality. You will find some things helpful and others not. You may discover that you need more or less structure. Maybe you need someone to motivate you to continue on. Perhaps being in a different environment would be helpful. Writing down your thoughts might have a positive effect. As you go through this process of change, be mindful of how you’re feeling and be aware of what seems to work best for you. Keep things simple and use setbacks as opportunities to refine your system so that you can find a routine that works for you.

9 Comments for “Backsliding can help you fine tune your routines”

  1. posted by Mom of A and a on

    Hi, I linked your post to my latest Friday post!

  2. posted by Vijay on

    Excellent post on backsliding. Good perspectives on how to fine tune when we fail. I have backslid on many occasions and to be honest, not found a middle ground. Your article inspires me to.

  3. posted by Lizzie on

    Cool post, Deb! I’ve always thought that the 21 days to a new habit thoughts work more for changes like putting your keys in a bowl by the door than for involved ones.

    I’m working on my weight this summer. (Sigh.) I got off to a great start and then the backsliding set in. So to regroup, I’ve signed up for Lifetick. I get emails from them–some daily, some less often–that I set up. I remind myself frequently throughout the day that I really want this. I’m not letting it recede into the dark little corners of my mind.

    But here’s my problem that goes hand in hand with backsliding: I need to not be so pass/fail with my goals! My goal was to lose thirty pounds by vacation (in three weeks). I’ve lost twenty. When I don’t make my goal (which is almost certain) I’ll be unable to say “hey…I didn’t lose thirty pounds, but look at what I DID lose!”

    On the other (more successful) hand, I found a excellent math program on the computer for my eight year old daughter! She’s good at the concept side of math, but finds memorizing the rote stuff a big bore. She’s been doing for a couple of weeks–no frills, just a daily quiz and two short drills–and it’s made a huge difference!
    Ten minutes a day. I need to figure out how to use this idea in my own life…

  4. posted by Lena on

    I have a particularly tricky bad habit: hitting the snooze button in the morning. The problem I’m having with breaking it is that I’m SO TIRED when it goes off, and I’m not conscious enough to talk myself through it. I just think “make it stop. I want to go back to sleep. Zzzzzz…”
    I need to change my approach. I will give your strategies a try! Thanks.

  5. posted by Bev on

    Lena – try putting your alarm clock out of reach so you’ll have to get up to shut it off. Once you’re up, DON’T go back to bed.

  6. posted by E2 on

    This is a really helpful post–thanks for the encouragement.

    PS: For Lena, perhaps the trick is breaking the snooze button habit, but figuring out how to get sufficient high quality sleep? I find that when I’m sleeping well, and in bed on time, I’m awake before the alarm has a chance to go off. Otherwise, it’s a struggle.

  7. posted by Her from there on

    Um, Lizzie… 30 pounds in 3 weeks? Perhaps the problem here isnt being black or white (pass/fail) but giving yourself impossible goals! I’ve been doing a guided exercise and diet program for 9 weeks now and have lost 10 kgs (22 pounds). I’m thrilled with that. I’m a large person with lots to lose but I feel there is no safe or maintainable way I could have lost it any faster. I’ve been on holidays for the last 2 weeks and managed to lose 3 kgs because I’m learning a new way of life. How do you plan to support that weight loss while you are on holidays or when you return? My course (Curves Complete) ends in 3 weeks but I plan on using what I’m being taught to continue losing weight and become a healthier size for my frame and age. I have given myself 2 years after the end of the course to achieve that goal. Sure, I’m larger in my holiday pics than I want to be, but thats who I am at this stage of my life and it sure as heck doesnt stop me having a great time.

  8. posted by [email protected] on

    I’ve been uncluttering for over 3-years now. As a previous (and recovering sentimental hoarder ;-)) what I have found is that I’ve had to break down my bad habits into bite-size pieces. Conquer each bit at a time. Example – I stopped acquiring sentimental stuff at the start of the change. I do fall off the wagon, and some thing slip through the net, but I know it is my achilles heel, so I then try harder next time. The next step some 18-months after was and still is to cull what I have. Stopping acquiring helped enormously, but I have a backlog, which I couldn’t deal with initially. I had to change fundamental habits and a deep-seated mindset to get to the point where I can see the bits of paper for what they are. Not my life or the lives of others, they are just bits of paper – I’m not throwing away lives and memories. It literally can change years to change habits, particularly those that you want to stay with you! There are no shortcuts just hard-work and dedication – Slow and steady wins the race every-time.

  9. posted by Rachel on

    Jo, thanks for your vocabulary and explanations! Your term “recovering sentimental hoarder” is especially helpful because it includes the reasons as well as the problem. The resulting clutter is _not_ desirable, but the motivation–valuing one’s personal relations or past experiences–deserves respect. I would like to use your term to replace my own phrase “recovering packrat” which sounds awfully judgmental in comparison.

    Also useful is your message that shedding one’s clutter-clutching ways means accepting some backsliding, breaking the project into manageable parts, and above all “changing fundamental habits and a deep-seated mindset.” Finally, I agree completely that “slow and steady wins the race.” No matter how much we magpies (and/or our nearest/dearest) may want an overnight transformation, it’s not always possible–at least, not if we want our changed habits to harden into a new way of living.

    Well, back to my own domestic improvements. Carry on, everyone!

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