Why Your Good Habits Fail (& What to Do Instead)

Your environment is the strongest predictor of your behaviors. If you live in an active city, you’ll be more active. If all your co-workers order salads, you’ll order a salad too. If you keep chocolate bars on the counter, you’ll eat more chocolate.

You can design your environment for guaranteed success on the behaviors you want to trigger whether you feel motivated or not. In this article I discussed the nitty gritty how-to’s of environment design. Specifically, thinking through the behavior you want to trigger before you ever perform the behavior. Details like where you put your gym clothes to the kind of containers in which you store your veggies all influence whether you actually go to the gym and eat your veggies.

Storing healthy food in clear containers means you'll eat it.

You will eat food stored in clear containers because they are visible & beautiful.

But environment isn’t enough. If it was, I’d still be counting my days of sobriety instead of no longer identifying as an addict. Read more here.

XXX days of sobriety, of not eating sugar, of dieting, or killing yourself in the gym is not success.

Success is the state in which you no longer fear the thing (addiction, sugar, gaining weight). Success is when it no longer wields control over you. The best formulas are flexible, allowing for experiments, risks, and tests. You cannot grow unless you leave your comfort zone (i.e., safety net) and practice. For example, I now drink occasionally and have been known to recreationally use marijuana (in states where it’s legal) without fearing “relapse” (within reason, y’all. I’m not saying to go use coke or meth).

You cannot always control your environment. But you can control your choices now that build to habits, that build your ability to make the good decisions in the future when you need it most.

The power of habits

The saying, We are creatures of habit is true. If you’ve ever missed an exit because you always use this road to travel to work and now you’re going to the airport, you know exactly what I mean. Habits are automatic. Habits feel easy because we don’t need to think about how to do them to do them. This frees up your brain to think about other things.

New behaviors feel hard because you must actively think about how to do them every time you do them. Making tea instead of coffee, going to bed earlier, or walking into a room tall and looking everyone in the eye instead of stooped staring at the floor, all feel uncomfortable and unnatural because they aren’t yet a habit.

The quickest way to adopt a new behavior is to make it automatic as quickly as possible. Stanford psychologist, BJ Fogg has a short free ebook called Tiny Habits that walks you through this whole process. I highly recommend it for a more in-depth treatment of habit formation.

But people still continue to set intentions on new habits, fail, and wonder what gives. Maybe exercise just isn’t for them? Maybe they weren’t meant to eat healthy or lose more puffiness or lift heavier.

Yes.

Actually no.

Why most new habits fail (& what to do instead)

Everyone wants a better (something). A better body, a better job, better sex, a better metabolism, a better life. The reason you don’t have these things or why these new habits feel forced is deeper than environment design and triggering habits.

These are the things I wish I had known when I started changing my life. If I had, I would have saved many a heartache, failure, and hamster wheel. Let’s look at why most people’s efforts at new habits ultimately fail, and what to do instead.

1. You don’t shoot yourself straight.

I’ll never forget one of my best friend’s introducing me to the rest of her bridal party. Amongst the introductions of “nicest gal ever,” “always there for me,” and “don’t know what I’d do without her,” she says, “This is Gerilyn. She tells me the truth, even when it stings.”

?!?!??!

Really? This is the first thing that comes to mind after years of friendship?

Now taking orders on spreadshirt.com

Now taking orders on spreadshirt.com

I finally realized it was a compliment. Few people will tell you the truth when you most need it. And while it sucks big time when you hear it, knowing the truth is far better than living the lie.

It’s easy to be critical of someone else. The hard part is being honest with ourselves.

Whenever you have trouble making or maintaining a new habit, chances are that you’re not being brutally honest with yourself in some area. Either,

  1. You haven’t accepted your current reality (instead of where you think you should be, want or wish to be), and/or
  2. You don’t really want – deep down – to lose weight, to eat healthy, to read more nonfiction, fill in the blank.

 

You cannot start a journey unless you know where you begin. That’s your current reality. It’s easy to pretend like you’ve only put on 10 pounds instead of 30, but until you step on the scale and let that number sink in, you cannot begin to change.

Until you acknowledge that you really don’t respect other people’s time, you won’t start showing up on time.

Until I acknowledge how selfish I am in my marriage, I cannot start the work of becoming selfless.

The irony is that this acceptance of the current state of affairs is the hardest part of change. You usually know the first steps to take and what you need to do immediately afterwards.

 

Next, you may not really want your goal. And that’s okay. Accepting that you don’t really want to be on a diet and are happy eating ice cream every day is soooo much better than dieting for years, but never experiencing “success.”

I can respect someone who does this.

What I hate seeing is someone always on a diet, but always miserable.

If a habit is really important to you, you’ll find a way to make it work. If it isn’t, stop beating around the bush. Own it that you don’t want it. And go on with your bad self. You’ll be much happier in the process.

 

KEY TAKEAWAYS:

  • What are your current challenges, setbacks, and areas that need improvement? Write ’em down.
  • Are you shootin’ yourself straight? What are you resisting or avoiding that contributes or causes your problem?
  • What value does this habit represent? Health? Respect? Kindness? Honesty? Connecting your habit as an expression of a deeper value makes it mean something beyond what you think you should do.

 

2. You overcomplicate it.

Here’s how your body works: it likes the status quo, so it will adapt as little as possible to a change to maintain the status quo. That’s why you’re crazy sore for every week when you return to the gym after several years off and try to work out like you’re 20 again.

You’re not.

Please stop.

You can get fitter than you were when you were 20, but asking too much of your body too soon is a recipe for failure and injury. Building muscle, better communication, and better habits are the same way. We can divide them into periods of:

Stress-Recovery

How much stress? Just beyond your current abilities. No more. Eat a handful of spinach before your dessert today (instead of trying not to eat dessert).

How much recovery? Plenty. Enough to guarantee success the next time you do it.

The formula: KISSS – Keep it simple & sexy, sweetie!

Don’t say you’re going to go the gym 4x a week if you are currently going none. Don’t try to completely overhaul your diet when you eat fried foods and chips at every meal.

Be realistic. Be honest. And be simple.

KEY TAKEAWAYS:

  • What’s the smallest step you can take today to begin your habit?
  • How can you build periods of stress and recovery into your daily routine now? Maybe it’s reading the first sentence of a book and then walking away or setting a timer for a break every 30-60 minutes to improve focus (and stop wasting time on Facebook).
  • How can you make your new behavior sexy? New clothes? New toys? Just do it.

 

3. You don’t get the right accountability.

There’s accountability. And then, there’s accountability.

What works for you may be different than for me, but you need to get the right accountability to turn a random behavior into a habit that lasts.

Some ideas:

  1. Commit to the gym or exercise once a week with a friend.
  2. Invest in a trainer, coach, or cook to get you started. Maybe it’s a 3 month commitment, maybe longer, but it ensures you get started, and make following-through as simple as possible.
  3. Get public about what you’re doing on social media, update people regularly, and ask for support. Once you put it out there, you’re more likely to follow through.

 

KEY TAKEAWAY:

  • What kind of accountability do you really need to ensure you will follow-through on your habit? How can you take action today on securing this accountability.

 

4. You aren’t using the right tools.

There are so many effective tools and strategies for successfully changing your habits out there, but people rely (unsuccessfully) on willpower more often than not. Willpower is like a gas tank that starts at full every day but diminishes throughout the day. The strength of your willpower is also dependent on your nutrition, energy, health, and sleep patterns.

Screw willpower. Use this stuff instead:

  • Cut cravings with 10 minutes of game play, try Tetris or Candy Crush. Your visual cortex, responsible for the strength of the craving, is the same part of the brain used in single-player games. Ten minutes lasts 3-4 hours. It doesn’t matter what craving.
  • Focus on the new habit you want instead of not doing the old habit that doesn’t serve you. Instead of, “I’m not going to eat sugar this week,” try “I’m going to eat a piece of fruit every time I want a snack.”
  • Build your decision muscles out loud. Once you decide something, burn the boats. There’s no going back. Start with really small things like, “I decide to drink a glass of water.” Say it out loud and drink it. Learning to do what you say you will do in small things builds to integrity in bigger things too. Conversely, if you know you’re not going to do something, for the love of ice cream, don’t say you will.
  • Make little rules for flexibility. The goal of new habits isn’t perfection, but consistency. You are what you repeatedly do, as the saying goes. One of my rules is, “I must eat peanut M&Ms and popcorn when we go to the movies.” Set up realistic parameters to acknowledge the times when you won’t be perfect, and that’s okay.
  • Always simplify & smooth out. If a habit takes 10 excruciating steps to complete, it won’t be a habit long. Instead, always ask yourself, “Is there an easier way or another way to do this?” I recently started training 2 miles from my house instead of 20. The difference is incomparable. The more you refine and smooth out your habit, the more likely it sticks and becomes your new normal.

KEY TAKEAWAYS:

  • How can you apply one of the above tools to refining your habits today?
  • How are you overcomplicating some of your initiatives? What are two ways you could simplify and make things easier right now?

 

***

To summarize, there’s more to a healthy lifestyle than getting the right environment and the right triggers. You need to build better habits that are flexible no matter what environment you’re in. When you shoot yourself straight, keep it simple, get the right accountability, and use the influx of tools we have today, change can flow and feel easy instead of forced and a constant struggle.

 

In the comments section below, share which of these common mistakes most resonated with you and name one way you will apply it to your own efforts today. I can’t wait to read ’em.

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