Building a new, lasting habit is hard. A recent survey showed that more than half of people who set a New Year’s resolution fail to keep it for longer than a year. That may sound like you have a fifty-fifty chance of forming a habit that sticks, but with the right preparation, you can beat the odds.
Habits fail for a variety of reasons — unrealistic goals, lack of support, and, perhaps most commonly, when one slip-up snowballs into a complete fall-out of your new habit. However, the phrase “an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure” gets repeated for a reason. If you can anticipate a slip, create a plan of action, and ultimately learn from your missteps, these stumbles merely become bumps on your journey towards building lifelong healthy habits.
What Causes a Slip?
No one’s perfect, and slip-ups will happen. You can be weeks into your new nutrition routine, feeling good and seeing results, but then your coworker brings in donuts, and a work trip requires multiple dinners out. Your routine has now been challenged.
Slips happen most often due to a breakdown in self-regulation. These breakdowns occur for a variety of nuanced reasons. Let’s take a look at the most common culprits to assess how they’re born — and how, with a bit of planning, they can be prevented.
Being in a Bad Mood
You may have gotten up on the wrong side of the bed, or life’s mundane annoyances may be getting you down; whatever the cause, bad moods can roll in at any time. If you’ve then found yourself sabotaging your own health goals as a result, you’re not alone. Research shows that negative moods can lead you to self-comfort with food or alcohol and deter you from pursuing important life goals. Fortunately, it doesn’t have to be this way.
How to Prevent This
Emotions are a part of life, so avoiding bad moods entirely is an unrealistic solution. Instead, start bringing more awareness to your emotions and the impact they have on your health habits.
To illustrate: Imagine that stress leads you to over-consume your favorite “treat” snack. The first step to stop this from happening is to identify the emotion you’re feeling (stress). The next step is to identify your unhealthy reaction to stress (eating treats). Once you’ve identified the emotion and the reaction, create a plan for handling the emotion in a healthier way.
To better handle stress, for instance, you could decide to take a walk before reaching for any treats. The important thing here is to make this plan before you get stressed! That way, you can start to break your old, unhealthy habit of reaching for treats and replace it with a new habit that gets you closer to your health goals.
For many people, alcohol is a part of socialization and human connection — two important contributors to human health and well-being. However, alcohol can also impair control, which makes sticking to a healthy routine more challenging. After a couple drinks, those onion rings look tastier, your bedtime feels less important, and if you’re already going to skip the gym tomorrow, why not have just one more drink?
How to Prevent This
Some people are perfectly happy cutting alcohol out of their routine. For others, having a few strategies for managing alcohol intake works better. These include drinking a glass of water in between each alcoholic beverage (to slow down the pace of consumption), choosing drinks with lower alcohol content, and setting a drink limit prior to going out.
An even more lasting form of moderation comes from the identity you curate. If you identify as someone who makes healthy choices, you’re far more likely to say no to the second glass of wine or to order the salad and not the fries, even when your control is impaired. The same goes for how others identify you — if you’re the “healthy friend” in your friend group, others are less likely to push you towards unhealthy options because, in their minds, you’ve already said no.
People tend to adjust their behaviors based on societal norms, acting similarly to others around them. This can be handy when the common behavior is a healthy one; however, it can also be a recipe for a slip-up. It’s much harder to order salad when everyone else has ordered pizza or to go for a walk when your buddies want to watch a fun sporting event from the couch.
Your tendency to “follow the crowd” in these situations is not a weakness; humans have a long history of social conformity. Social circles provide valuable information, set standards, and create a sense of community. These benefits, combined with the basic human need for acceptance and belonging, are what make breaking away from the norm so challenging — even if that norm is not good for your health.
How to Prevent This
Living a life of solitude is not the answer. Instead, begin by attempting to shift the societal norm within your social circle — be the leader of positive change towards healthier habits! If you and your family gravitate towards watching TV when you spend time together, suggest taking the action outside and plan a hike instead. Always meeting friends at the local pizza joint? Swap it for a new Mediterranean place. You’ll have the most success if you can get your friends and family involved in trying out new hobbies and foods that support some of your longevity goals.
If your current social groups aren’t willing to make much of a shift, consider searching for an additional community that supports some of your healthy habits. Try a deep-breathing class, join a running group, or take some cooking lessons. You’ll find it can be fairly easy to form new connections when you have similar goals in mind.
Behind every action, there is a cue — something that triggers the desire to behave a certain way. These cues tend to be other learned behaviors and can either help or hinder progress towards a goal. For example, watching a movie can trigger a popcorn craving, and a pizza night might not feel the same without an ice-cold soda or beer.
Sometimes, the connection between these environmental cues and your habit disruption has become so automated that you won’t notice it unless you pause and ask yourself why you made that particular decision. You’re trying to cut down on alcohol, so why did you drink that beer? It’s because you were eating pizza for dinner and reached for the beer automatically!
How to Prevent This
Take some time to identify what cues tend to lead to undesirable behavior. Throughout the day, pause and ask yourself: Why did I make that decision? Many times you will be able to find a common trigger, such as a situation or action, that occurred immediately prior to the behavior.
Once you’ve identified your triggers, remove them to the extent possible. Hide the remote if you want to cut back on TV time, push the tempting snacks to the back of the cabinet, or keep alcohol out of your house
Some triggers cannot be removed. In those circumstances, the goal is to try creating new responses to those triggers. For example, if having dinner triggers your desire for dessert, immediately head outside for a walk once your meal is complete or have a healthier dessert option, like fresh fruit and yogurt, at the ready. The more often you do this, the more closely paired the dinner trigger will be with the evening walk response, and the less closely it will be paired with the dessert-craving response.
Disruption of Routine
Schedules and routines also tend to dictate behavior. Once you are thrown into a new environment or don’t have your typical resources nearby, the disruption of your routine makes continuing a healthy habit even more challenging. Travel, holidays, and illness tend to be common routine disruptors.
How to Prevent This
As best you can, try to recreate your routine within your new circumstances. On vacation, where you’re lacking access to your hometown gym, continue your daily workout routine by taking the movement to the beach or even doing a short circuit in your bedroom. (The best guarantee of success is making a plan in advance. Deciding what sorts of workouts to do on vacation can be part of the fun of planning the trip!) Focus on maintaining a bedtime routine no matter where you will be sleeping, and if you will be staying in a hotel, find one that has a kitchenette so that you can cook at least some of your meals the way you would at home.
The takeaway here is to make your routines adaptable so you can feel some sense of normalcy despite where you are. Of course, some routines will inevitably get broken, so try using a few tips below to help get you back on track!
How to Get Back into It
Sometimes, even if you take preventive measures, a slip lasts so long that your habit goes dormant. To regain the habit and work it back into your life, employ a combination of the following three strategies: building momentum through other health habits, optimizing your environment, and leveraging social support.
Build Momentum from Other Positive Habits
Commonly known as the “transfer effect,” actively making improvements in one area of your life can encourage similar improvements in other areas. This is an effect you can leverage when it comes to renewing healthy habits… or even creating them anew! If one of the Four Pillars of Health (Nutrition, Activity, Sleep, and Restoration) seems too challenging, try working on another Pillar first in order to gain momentum and capitalize on the transfer effect. Then, check out how that momentum is accumulating in the Zero Calendar. There’s nothing like seeing a string of successfully completed Pillars to give you a boost of motivation!
Create an Environment for Success
For habits that you want to restart, make them convenient and obvious. Want to eat more fruit? Put apples in a bowl on your kitchen counter, right in your line of sight. Ready to get back into your yoga routine? Place your mat and blocks somewhere in your living room where you can’t miss them.
The same principle holds true for known obstacles to the healthy habits you want to create, only now, you want to employ “out of sight, out of mind.” An act as simple as keeping your phone in another room at night can prevent you from scrolling in bed and losing precious hours of sleep. If a certain food tends to trigger a chain reaction of poorer choices, keep that item in the back of the pantry or don’t buy it at all
Use the Buddy System
The same way social situations have the potential to derail a healthy habit, they can also help you get back on track. Research has shown that support from those around you, especially people with whom you cohabitate, encourages healthy habits such as walking and nutritious meal choices. Partnering with another person also creates shared motivation and accountability, which helps to maintain habits in the long run. So, invite a friend over for a healthy meal or tag in a buddy for a fun workout. It might just become your new favorite routine!
Slip-ups happen, but they don’t mean you should give up on your healthy habits. Long-term positive change is still achievable, even when you make a mistake. By taking simple, proactive steps such as anticipating disruptions, creating a reset routine, and using reliable strategies to recover broken habits, you can keep your health on track and prevent stumbles from turning into falls.