New Habit on a Slide? This Three-Point Strategy Will Get You Back on Track

By Mary Jaksch

Did you make a resolution to start a new habit a while ago? Maybe you were determined to start exercising, lose weight, get up early, stop smoking, start meditating, and so on. What happened – did you manage to establish a new habit? Or is your new habit on a downward slide – or never really got off the ground?

The problem is that humans beings tend towards homeostasis, that is, we like stable, constant conditions. Change is unsettling. I’m just in the middle of trying to establish a new habit, namely doing a short run at first light. It’s not easy. But what makes it possible are two important factors, using a particular mindset, and following a n0-fail strategy.

The mindset that makes change easier

When we embark on change, we often think in black and white. That is, we feel good when we follow our goals of change, and feel bad when we lapse. Because lapses are normal during the process of change, we tend to have a lot of negative self-talk around establishing new habits. That’s not very helpful.

Personally, I use the mindset of inquiry to help with change. I’m curious about the process of change, so everything is of interest. When I lapse or struggle, I don’t beat myself up. Instead I take interest in why I lapsed, and I devise experiments about how to get myself back on track.

Why you should forget about ‘all or nothing’

It’s easy to get hooked into a kind of ‘all or nothing’ mindset. What that means is that we dismiss any small attempt to change. For example, say that your goal is to meditate at least 25 minutes each morning. But then you get up too late one day, and you have only 5 minutes. At that point, most people then flag meditation for that day because they think that just 5 minutes isn’t worthwhile.

There is another way to go about this. If you ditch your ‘all-or-nothing’ mindset, you’ll find that just 5 minutes is a much better option than doing nothing, because it keeps the new habit going, even if it’s at a low level.

The three-point strategy

Forget about what you ‘should’ be doing. Instead, make change easy for yourself. Here is a three-point strategy that enables you to change – without putting pressure on yourself.

Strategy point #1: “Too easy”

Make sure that you set a schedule of change that is ‘too easy’. This is a way of flying under your radar of change.

Strategy point #2: “Too slow”

Wind down your expectations and forget about what you ‘should’ be doing. For example, if you want to start running, ‘too slow’ is an excellent strategy. If you want to lose weight and it seems to be taking for ever for your kilos to start coming off: that’s ‘too slow’ – which is actually a good thing. Because slow change tends to stick better.

Strategy point #3: “Too short”

Remember the ‘all or nothing’ mindset? This strategy teaches you the reverse. It teaches you that even the shortest time of engaging your new habit is valuable. Let’s say you want to exercise 30 minutes each day, but somehow the day got used up and there are only 5 minutes left. If you exercise briskly for 5 minutes, you support your new habit, rev up your body, and feel more alive.

So, try out this strategy of ‘too easy’, ‘too slow’, and ‘too short’. I think you will find that it’s much easier to establish a new habit if you use this strategy. It undercuts your expectations, and makes establishing your new habit easier and more pleasurable.

What’s your experience of establishing new habits?


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  1. Hi Mary

    Great advice!

    Someone once shared the following suggestion to me about achieving goals. They asked me, ‘How do you eat an elephant?’ The response was : ‘One small bite at a time.’

    So often, and I know that I have been guilty of it myself, we set ourselves up to fail – especially in the habit changing arena, by setting high and lofty goals.

    Better to win small battles first – so that we can win the war against resistant bad habits that need replacement.
    Peter G. James Sinclair´s last blog post ..7 Reasons Why I Love Being Unemployable

  2. The Vizier says:

    Hi Mary,

    It is definitely not easy to introduce change in our lives. After all, we are used to our routine and comfort zone. Anything that interferes with the status quo is disruptive. That said, I agree that mindset and having a no-fail strategy is indeed the way to go about bringing positive changes in our lives. The mindset that I prefer to adopt is one of need. If I need and want desperately to change, change comes about more easily and naturally for me. I know the why and with this motivation, it is easy to implement and stick to the changes I want to make. If the reason for change is not strong enough in my mind, it is easy for a new habit to slide. Hence, I like to have many compelling reasons to support the changes I want to make.

    I like you idea of ditching the all or nothing mindset. Even if we miss most of our allocated time for meditation for example, just by sticking to and carrying out the rest of the routine, it is still a good way to instill the habit in us. Not all of us will have great days when it comes to carrying out new habits. What matters is consistency and sticking to our routines as far as possible. Perfection here is not the key, consistency is.

    Too easy, too slow and too short are all great ways of establishing new habits in our lives. It is not easy to bring about change if it is too difficult. But if it is something that is easy for us and does not require that much mental effort, we are likelier to change.

    Thank you for sharing this article! :)

    Irving the Vizier
    The Vizier´s last blog post ..How the Vizier Avoids Overeating During Chinese New Year

  3. […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Mary Jaksch, kurio's resource. kurio's resource said: New Habit on a Slide? This Three-Point Strategy Will Get You Back on Track http://dlvr.it/FqDXk […]

  4. GutsyWriter says:

    Breaking things into small part is always easier. I’m guilty of thinking about accomplishing the whole thing and then feel overwhelmed. I have to write my QUERY LETTER in ONE DAY, instead of Too Easy, Too Slow, Too Short.
    I need to focus on one thing, even a simple sentence, at a time rather than the overall project. Thanks. Sonia.

  5. Mary,
    This is excellent advice. I’ve been out of the forum with this sinus/cold stuff that has been hanging on for 3 weeks. In the beginning I was exercising anyway. Then I quit thinking I’m not getting over this if I don’t rest. Yesterday I went for a 2 mile walk/run. It worked out great. Easy, slow and short. I hadn’t thought of it that way!

    Oprah’s staff went vegan for a week and the show was all about that lifestyle last Wednesday. My daughter and I are trying it again. I’m going to send her this link and suggest, easy slow and short. Brilliant. Thanks.
    Tess The Bold Life´s last blog post ..Kick Your Obstacles to the Curb- Live Your Dream

  6. Mary,

    It’s so helpful to be reminder of the idea of homeostasis! It’s more ammunition for being gentle with ourselves. I like all these strategies, but “too short” is definitely a favorite. You always have a unique perspective on habits and change. Thank you.
    Sandra ~ Always Well Within´s last blog post ..Five Fine Personal Development Links 2-4-11

  7. Hi Mary. I love what you said about the all-or-nothing thinking. I think this is a trap for many people. The disappointment of missing the mark is often the start of giving up; but it doesn’t have to be. I try to remember to go easy on myself. If plan A doesn’t work, I can go to plan B and maybe come back to plan A later. Progress is progress; and failure isn’t possible unless you give up.
    Nea | Self Improvement Saga´s last blog post ..Inspirational Thoughts- What People Say about You

  8. Grace Catley says:

    Thanks again Mary for your great, original approach to challenges. Too easy, too slow and too short are such playful phases to use when establishing new habits.
    A friend with a young baby needed motivation to get out for exercise. She asked me to go jogging with her and her baby and stroller once a week. I thought “Oh it will be too slow, short and easy to be worthwhile but I’ll go to support her.” A year on we are still jogging, further and faster than initially, and we both love the social contact.
    I know I have gained atleast as much as my friend from the consistent, cruisey approach to exercise as she has. We even stop to pick flowers for her little boy when he asks!

  9. Justlife says:

    What a brilliant idea, Mary. The three point strategy are not only supporting our new habits, but also help to prevent us from being frustrated too easily. As quoted from Peter A. Cohen: “There is no one giant step that does it. It’s a lot of little steps.” … it’s possible even it’s a 5 minute walk everyday. Very thought provoking, thanks Mary~

  10. Great tips Mary! I have several things in the works that I don’t seem to have time to get to. Maybe if I just start slowly and take little steps it will all come together over the month. Great reminders!!

  11. Vala says:

    Thank you, Mary.
    This was exactly the nudge I needed after having become frozen on my recently opened blogging path. I was full of big ideas but felt too nervous about committing to the “wrong thing”! So today I did a post that was too easy, too slow, and too short. Sigh . . . it feels wonderful!
    Vala

  12. Maggie Dodson says:

    Hi Mary,
    So affirming to read this.
    Having just returned from two months in a place where I found it impossible to continue the life I was leading at home I simply resumed my Morning Papers where I’d left off ie in the middle of Week 8. No regrets, no recriminations and it felt good.

    If we’re trying to lead creative and imaginative lives I believe we must allow for the unexpected. Ought and should belong with the straight lines of life, they’re a bit too strict, I reckon, outside of safety regulations at work.

    What takes us off course is life calling us in a direction we did not plan. No problem. Life has a habit of sending us what we need when we’re planning otherwise!

    A plan of action can be resumed anytime and whatever the diversion we are probably richer, more inspired and more fired up to continue the original plan with renewed energy.

    What took me off course was an experience that I would never have wanted to miss out on.

  13. Leah says:

    Thanks for this post! I’m going to apply “too easy, slow, and short” to my New Year’s goal of embracing holistic nutrition. I’ve been going strong with a 21-day sugar detox, it ends tomorrow, and I’ve cheated and indulged in chocolate the past couple days. But instead of beating myself up, I’m going to focus the good – I have been cooking more whole-food meals in the past 3 weeks, than I have in months! This is the birth of a really good habit!

    I also agree with the Vizier, feeling overwhelmed can be a great motivator to stick to our goals. The reason I want to embrace holistic health is to have more energy, less fatigue, and more balanced hormones. If I remind myself of this, I am more likely to keep trying to establish new habits, even when I mess up.
    Leah´s last blog post ..Dare To Be Creative Every Day

  14. Jane says:

    Hi Mary,

    You must be reading my mind! This is exactly what I needed to keep me going in the fitness challenge. I have gone from 3 x a week at the gym to only going once last week, and a cold might keep me from the gym for much of this week. My all-or-nothing thinking says that this is bad, but realistically I know that sticking at ANYTHING new is hard, and that once a week is better than none!

  15. Oskari says:

    Thanks Mary, great post!

    I love the approach of accepting reality, while still keeping yourself accountable for the new habit. I use the same approach in my body-training after work… even if I don’t have the time to do a full workout, on the appointed days I atleast to some sets. The satisfaction is immence, as I prove to myself that I’m committed and worth the promise I gave for myself.

    Tonight have to work later though, and no time for sports. Shame…
    Oskari´s last blog post ..Living life as a practice

  16. Danny says:

    These were great points.. thank’s for sharing :) I love the idea that failing to change is just a part of ‘experimenting’ with change.

  17. Hi Mary,
    In the past couple of years, I’ve used similar ideas to establish a regular walking habit, healthy eating habit, and the habit of writing daily ‘morning pages’.
    I’ve found that being focused on the positive benefits of establishing the new habits, rather than seeing them as something that I ‘have to’ do has really helped me to stick with the changes. The great thing about your 3 points is that they allow for a lot of flexibility, which I think can make the difference between a habit we stick with or a habit we give up on.
    Now I’m going to look at how I might be able to use your three-point strategy to develop an effective blog post writing habit! Thanks for the timely post.

  18. Ah thank you for this Mary. I feel that the last 2 weeks or so, I’ve been letting my motivation slip and then once it does, it’s almost like all hell breaks loose, which is just like your “all or nothing” statement. Time to get back on the horse and get back to work!

  19. Whoa! I had to seriously ponder on my take here. The three-point strategy, at first glance, may seem to fall short of anyone’s ideals when it comes to forming or breaking a habit. It’s always been a “this or that” rule. But on a deeper level, it’s actually the same but just leveled-off so well to a realistic and doable phase or process.

    In particular, why do we need to set the “perfect” goal that’s impractical and way too difficult? That just demotivates us, right. So with having a mindset that takes the needed change as “easy,” it’s actually a positive step towards loving what comes ahead. Sort of an advance treat instead of a menacing hardship.

    Yes, we need to slow down as well. That’s why there’s the adage, slowly but surely. Hardly anything notable happens overnight – even winning the lottery means going through the arduous process before getting the lot, so I heard. So with taking the change as journey that’s shorter than what others would think. Why beat our hopes up with celebrations that could take years to achieve? What about celebrating each weekly or monthly accomplishment?

    In the end, even if we use these three strategies, success still would boil down to the ultimate goals we have ahead. Plus, let’s not forget it takes strong resolve to get there. So it would be interesting to use these three ideas as “mindset shifts” instead of attaching it directly to actually getting the goals the short, slow and easy way.
    arina nikitina´s last blog post ..10 Steps to Expressing Constructive Criticism and to Being Heard

  20. Alyssa says:

    Thanks for the post – sadly, all it made me think about was this:

    http://thehairpin.com/2011/01/women-laughing-alone-with-salad/

    I’ll still stay subscribed, though.

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