How to stick to good habits without being hard on yourself

woman sitting on hill

Say you decide to start meditating. You get one of those meditation apps that guide you gently through the process and get to it. You feel pretty good the first time. The second time feels nice as well. By the end of the week with 5 sesssions under your belt you think you’ve got it, the habit is locked in.

Then the weekend comes and you stay up late drinking beer with some friends (responsly keeping social distancing of course). The next morning your alarm goes off, reminding you of your morning sit. You snooze it. And then you snooze it again. By the time you get out of bed, the sun is up, it’s too warm, you’re hungry, the dishes from last night need washing and you convince yourself it’s OK to skip it – just today.

The next morning you wake up intending to restart your habit, but you feel some resistance. Your knees hurts and your mind is messy and you think maybe you’d skip another day. By day three of the pause, the guilt and shame set in and the doubt arives: Could you ever do it? Could you ever stick to anything? Could you ever amount to anything? By day four you decide that meditation isn’t for you and it might take years before you try it again.

Most guides on the internet will tell you to never skip that set on that first day of not feeling like it. But that’s impossible. We’re human beings, not machines. We fail and we need to work with that.

Of all the different ways to describe meditation, there is one I found particularly useful. Instead of viewing meditation as an exercise in clearing your mind, the teaching goes, it is the practice of returning your focus to the breath again and again. Importantly, meditation happens not when you’re already focused on the breath, but in that instant when you catch yourself lost in thought, and return your focus to the breath. It is this repetition of losing yourself in thought and then finding your way back again that trains your mind to be present and that’s where most of the benefits of meditation come from. Curiously enough, the same approach works on a higher level too. The meditation habit isn’t primarily about meditating daily. Instead it’s about about restarting your daily practice when you invariably lose it (often for reasons outside your control).

Now, this post isn’t about meditation, it’s about habits in general. And this approach is useful for any habit you want to set up. Learning how to restart habits after skipping a few days is more important than setting them up in the first place.

You’ll need to learn how to do four things:

  1. Forgive yourself when you skip a day (easy)
  2. Forgive yourself when you skip two days (harder)
  3. Forgive yourself when you skip three days (oof)
  4. Forgive yourself when you skip four days (yeah…)

This will give your natural motivation four whole days to resurface by which time you shouldn’t have a problem restarting the practice.

And if you meditate / exercies / eat well / write a thousand words only once every four days, it’s still a consistent habit. A few months of that will change you for good (and help you set tighter habits).

Follow me @finereli where I write about emotional intelligence and mental health.