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5 Tips to Keep You From Falling Off the Wagon

Have you ever fallen off track while tying to maintain a not-so-daily habit such as exercising 3-4 times a week or getting up at 5:00 am on weekends?

If you perform a certain task every day for weeks on end, it’s usually pretty easy to maintain. However, once you take a day or two off, it can be harder to start up again on your next “on” day.

So I’m going to give 5 tips to keep your from falling off the wagon.

Make it daily anyway.

The first solution is to turn almost-daily habits into daily habits. Sometimes it’s no big deal to continue the habit even when it isn’t’ necessary, and the upside is that you’ll have a stronger habit with less risk of losing ground.

With close to 100% daily consistency, a habit will typically maintain itself on autopilot, so you don’t even have to think about it any more. But with 80-90% consistency, the contrast between your on and off days is always in the back of your mind.

Do I have to get up early tomorrow, or can I sleep in late? Do I need to exercise today, or can I skip it?

If you have a lot of almost-daily habits, this can be a big cognitive burden and quite a distraction. Maintaining good habits becomes much more difficult than necessary.

Use placeholder habits

Another option is to create an alternative, placeholder habit for your days off.

Suppose you want to exercise 5 days a week, and you really want to keep those off days. Instead of doing your regular workout, you could schedule an alternative activity for the same time. Instead of doing your usual workout, you could use your days off to go for a walk, read, meditate, write in a journal, etc.

I recommend that you use placeholder habits that are similar in some way to the original habit. For example, on your off days for exercise, you could still do something physical like walking, stretching, or yoga. This turns your physical development into an every day practice, even though you’re doing different activities each day.

Chain Habits

When you chain a series of habits together, they become easier to maintain. As soon as you begin the first habit in the chain, the rest of the sequence will take care of itself.

My usual morning routine involves getting up, working out, taking Anderson to school, taking a shower, getting dressed, eating breakfast, etc. It’s a pretty stable pattern. But sometimes when I feel I’m at risk of over training, I’ll skip my workout without substituting anything. When this happens I can just jump into the next link in my morning habit chain, which means I’ll get up and take Anderson to school.

I find that when I occasionally skip habits that are part of a longer daily chain, it’s fairly easy to put them back in again as long as I continue to maintain the first and last tasks in the chain. As long as I get up early and go to the gym or get up early and take a shower, my not-quite-daily exercise habit remains pretty solid. But if I mess with the first link in the chain and I don’t get up at my usual time, the whole sequence is more likely to be blown.

So the idea is to put your not-quite-daily habits in the middle of a chain of daily habits. If you maintain the overall chain, you’ll probably find it easier to maintain the middle likes as well, even though you sometimes skip them.

Make specific commitments.

If there are certain habits you won’t perform every day, decide exactly when you’ll perform them. “I’m going to exercise 3-4 days per week” is too vague and wishy-washy. “I’ll do a 30-minute workout at the gym every Monday, Wednesday, Friday and Saturday morning at 6:30 am, alternating between weight training and aerobic conditioning” is much better. The more specific your commitment, the better.

Block out time on your schedule, and add these commitments to your calendar. Be sure not to schedule anything else for those times. It’s very easy to fail when you give yourself too many outs and don’t really commit. On any given day, there should be no question as to where you will or won’t perform your habitual activity. Ditch the might’s, maybes and shoulds. Either you will or your won’t. Decide what it will be.

Turn habits into appointments.

If you have a hard time maintaining irregular habits, find a way to turn them into appointments that involve someone else. It’s easier to ditch a habit if you’re only accountable to yourself, but most people are less willing to skip appointments that would leave someone else hanging.

Get a workout buddy. Schedule early AM phone calls with another early riser. Plan home organization time with your roommate(s) at the same time each week. Schedule regular babysitting for date night with your spouse.

Your accountability will be greater when you involve others in your not-quite-daily habits.

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