Stop Forming Habits and Start Keeping Habits: the Shift in Mindset that Makes all the Difference

I put a checkmark next to all of my intentioned actions today. Hopefully I will do the same tomorrow, but I might not. And that’s OK. I’ll still keep my habits. Life’s a rollercoaster and I’m not focused on waiting in line and taking my seat. I’m focused on knowing that the ups will become downs and the downs will become ups.

I have wined and dined with kings and queens, and I’ve slept in alleys and dined on pork and beans.
— Dusty Rhodes

Here’s an example. I’ve journaled for 5 years… except that I haven’t.

Visit productivityjournals.com for context.

Here’s what I mean. In 5 years, I’ve actually only journaled in:

  • 35 of 60 months. That’s less than 60% of months.
  • 91 of 240 weeks. That’s only 38% of weeks.
  • 750 of 1,825 days. Only 41% of possible days.

For a “daily” habit that I write a lot about, that’s hypocritical. My habit is demonstrably inconsistent.

But I learned years ago that I’m not good at forming habits. For the first few days, sure, I’d do the thing. Then life came along and the habit withered, only to return a few months down the road. Only to meet the same fate again.

This is why I don’t place my emphasis on forming habits. I don’t try to do something for 66 days in a row or whatever science says I should do. Instead, I focus on keeping habits.

Consistency is Overrated

When you miss doing Habit X for a day, week, month, or even a year, a voice in your head declares:

“It’s all ruined now. Might as well accept defeat!”

That’s why one missed day turns into two days, one week into three, one month into a year. It’s why so many habits are start-stop, start-stop for our entire lives. It’s why so many of my habits fell by the wayside only to be “reformed” later.

Consistency is both necessary and sufficient for forming a habit; however, it is neither necessary nor sufficient for keeping a habit.

In other words: Don’t let convince yourself that you’ve lost the war when you’ve lost one measly battle.

Grit is Underrated

More important than consistency is the willingness to return to a practice after an absence. Grit.

How many have almost reached the goal of their ambition, but, losing faith in themselves, have relaxed their energies, and the golden prize has been lost forever.
— P.T. Barnum

If you accept that you’ll drop the ball and neglect habits, and if you expect that your inner self will seize the opportunity to deflate your ambitions, you’ll be prepared to soldier on. Slowly, over time, you’ll build confidence in your ability to pick the habit back up. You will no longer beat yourself up. You will no longer have to worry about reforming the habit because you’ll have the habit.

Strategy

To keep the habit, you must anticipate threats. While threats are unpredictable, they are predictably unpredictable. We don’t know when these threats will come but we know that they will come.

Here are some threats I’ve encountered over the years and how I’ve dealt with them (or how I wish I dealt with them.)

TRAGEDY STRIKES

It’s hard to focus on keeping a habit when you aren’t sure if you can make it through the day. Eventually, we’ll want a distraction from our emotions. We can choose whether the distraction is Netflix or our journal, or a run, or a book, or anything else related to our goals and habits.

DEATH BY A MILLION PAPER CUTS

The most existential threat to habit-keeping isn’t the worst the world throws at us — it’s the small, barely perceptible wounds we give ourselves everyday.

Every time we make a short term decision (such as getting lost in a Facebook rabbit hole), we give ourselves a little cut. We justify the decision and promise never to do it again. But each time we make such a decision, we increase the chances that we’ll make the same decision again. And again. And again.

The only strategy for preventing death by a million paper cuts is to prevent the cut if we can, and if we can’t, to make the cuts small and shallow. Lower your expectations in order to fulfill your intentions. Give yourself permission to compromise with yourself.

Do the thing but change up the routine. Try a different workflow. Do something else first then come back to it. Or, if you must, go into “Survival Mode” where you write one line of code, do one push-up, write one line in the journal, or watch a leaf fall slowly from a tree instead of meditating. Seemingly “small” actions, if they keep a habit, are worth their weight in gold.

There are two mistakes one can make along the road to truth — not going all the way, and not starting.
— Gautama Buddha

HYPER-FOCUS

Sometimes we face the opposite problem: We become obsessed with one goal and hyper-focus upon it, ultimately to the detriment of other goals. We feel like we’re being productive, and technically we are, but we’re leaving a path of destruction behind us. After you finish this important project or accomplish this critical goal, you will live to fight another day for another cause — hopefully many days and many causes. You will be in this same situation again and again, finding yourself hyper-focusing on one thing while neglecting others.

How you perform now is probably how you will perform then.

When I feel myself becoming hyper-focused, I make myself work five or ten minutes on one of my neglected projects. This has several benefits. I make progress, and I keep the habit. This also provides insight into why I’m hyper-focusing. Is it because I’m procrastinating in some other area of my life? Or am I genuinely passionate? Once I know this, I can make an informed decision regarding how to proceed.

You can also use this extra motivation for accomplishing Goal A to help you accomplish goals B and C. Force yourself to complete other tasks before allowing yourself to work on the preferred task. By rewarding yourself, you’re in effect taking the excess motivation and distributing it elsewhere.

ACCEPT, AND EXPLICITLY DEFINE, LIMITATIONS

It is suboptimal to do all things optimally. When all the elements of a system are at capacity, the system itself is over capacity. You must find elements of your system where you are willing to accept limitations.

Example: I have zero ambition of running a marathon or being in anything close to “elite” shape. I will probably never try to extend my meditation sessions beyond 20 or 30 minutes. I cannot commit to writing several pages in my journal with much regularity.

Such “limitations” in one place also make it possible to have “unlimitations” elsewhere.

VACATION

Personally, if I take a week off from all of my habits, I have a very hard time getting back into the swing of things. Maybe you are more disciplined and can do that. If you cannot, my recommendation is this: At a bare minimum, keep performing at least one action related to your long term goals. This need not take much time at all and will make it infinitely easier to get the system back up-and-running when you return. Take a vacation, but not from everything. Go for a run, or just do a push-up. Write in your journal, even if it’s only one line. Keeping something going is almost as good as keeping everything going.

RE-ENTRY PLANS

Vacations will not be the only time your habits will come to a halt. Inevitably, you will neglect them. A day here or there, a week, maybe a month or more. You can, of course, summon enough grit to pick the entire habit back up. But there’s a way to make it easier: re-entry plans.

Re-entry plans are a failsafe. They prevent neglect from becoming abandonment. You can make plans for specific actions (e.g., “What To Do If I Stop Working Out”) or you can have a plan that applies to all actions. It doesn’t matter. The important thing is to have a plan that requires nominal grit. If you lose your exercise habit, the plan might be to go for a walk. If you stop writing 1,000 pages a day, the plan might be for 50 words.

I use one action: I write a single line in my journal. I do this when I drop the ball on journaling or any other habit — or all of them. Each time, I’ve kept writing, wanting to tell the story of why I’d been away from the particular habit(s). Like catching up with an old friend, doing sogives me enough of a spark to do something else, then something else.

And, soon enough, I’m back on track.

WRONG HABIT

Maybe you’ve dropped the habit because something more fundamental is amiss. Have a series of questions ready to ask yourself. Maybe your goals have changed or maybe there’s a better way to go about achieving them. Maybe your sleeping habits have changed, affecting when you feel at your peak. Maybe the winter makes running difficult. Maybe your shin splints suggest you should run less and practice yoga more. Whatever the reason, find it, then adjust as necessary.

(I believe journaling makes such shifts perceptible earlier than they otherwise would be.)

A Final Quote and a Final Note

I love this quote:

How we spend our days is how we spend our lives.
— Annie Hillard

But I ultimately disagree with it.

How we spend most of our days is how we spend our lives.


You can learn more about keeping habits in my book, on my blog, and by following me here on Medium.


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