By Leo Babauta
We all do it in some form — tell ourselves we’re going to do something, and then we often end up not sticking to that plan.
Maybe one or more of these will resonate with you:
- You say you’re going to stick to a certain diet, and then you end up breaking it in half a day, and then mostly abandoning it.
- You say you’re going to work hard on certain projects and not procrastinate anymore, and then you get distracted by something and the plan goes out the door.
- You say you’re going to meditate (or do yoga, read, write, etc.) every morning, and then one of these mornings you are in a rush or are tired and skip the meditation. Then you do it again the next day.
- You say you’re going to stay on top of your email, or read more, or finally tackle that clutter … and the plan doesn’t even get off the ground.
- You say you’re going to work out four times a week, and that works out exactly once, then you just don’t go to the gym.
So what’s going on? Are we just horrible people, with no discipline? Are we liars, never to be believed? Are we hopeless cases, consigned to spending a life on the couch eating donuts and potato chips, watching Netflix and hating ourselves?
I find this a fascinating subject, and I’ve been studying it in myself and in the thousands of people I’ve worked with. Here’s what I’ve been finding.
The Reasons We Don’t Stick With Our Plan
One of the things I’ve found is that there isn’t always just one reason. Sometimes it’s multiple reasons at once, or other times it’s different reasons depending on the situation or the type of person you are.
But here are some of the most common reasons we don’t stick to things:
- We don’t take it seriously. This is my No. 1 problem in this area — I tell myself I’m going to stick to a new plan, but I think that’s enough to make it happen. I somehow assume it’s going to be easy, despite all the past evidence that the only time I stick to things is when I take them seriously and put in a serious effort. Most of the time, we just half commit to something, kind of like only being half in a relationship — with that kind of commitment, eventually you’ll be out of it.
- We just forget. We tell ourselves we’re going to meditate every day, with complete resolve. Then the morning comes and we just plain forget. We remember later, but we’re busy then. The next morning, we forget again. By the time we remember, we feel disappointed with ourselves and give up.
- We run from discomfort or uncertainty. When the exercise habit (or meditation) gets uncomfortable, we stop enjoying it, and make up excuses to put it off (see No. 5 below). When we face a difficult habit like writing or big tasks at work, there is a lot of uncertainty in those tasks, so we start finding reasons to put it off. We don’t like uncertainty or discomfort, so we try to get out of it.
- We give in to temptation, out of habit. Temptation is all around us: the temptation of chocolate cake when we said we’re going to stick to a diet, the temptation of TV when we said we’re going to go to bed earlier, the temptation of the phone or Internet when we said we’re going to meditate. Actually, temptation is just a bit of discomfort, but our habitual response is to just give in. Rationalize, and let the temptation rule our response.
- We rationalize. When something gets difficult, or we have a temptation in front of us, our minds start to rationalize why it’s OK to do what we said we weren’t going to do. Our brains can be very very good at rationalizing: “Just one more won’t hurt,” or “You worked hard, you deserve it,” or “This time doesn’t count, you’ll start tomorrow,” or “It’s a special occasion, this is a good exception.” Those all sound reasonable, except that they sabotage our plans. Once we start to believe these rationalizations, sticking to anything goes out the door.
- We renegotiate. We say we’re going to do something, then when the moment comes to do it, we’re feeling temptation, discomfort, uncertainty … and so we start to say, “Well, I’m still going to do it, but in 5 minutes, after I check my messages.” Or, “I’m tired right now, I’ll just take a day off and do it tomorrow.” This is another form of rationalization — basically, just a habitual response to not wanting to do something, a way to get out of it. My friend Tynan says one of the most harmful things to the habit of self-discipline and building trust in ourselves is the habit of renegotiating with ourselves.
- We dislike the experience and avoid things we dislike. This seems natural — if I don’t like to eat vegetables, I probably will avoid them. If I don’t like to face an uncomfortable writing task, I’ll put it off. But the problem is that with every habit, with every difficult project … we’re going to find multiple moments of discomfort, of disliking the experience. We’ll never stick to anything if we bail as soon as we dislike something. Instead, we have to see that this habit of disliking, judging, resenting, mentally complaining, and avoiding … it’s hurting us. We don’t need to like everything about an experience to put ourselves fully into it. We are stronger than that.
- We forget why it’s important. Maybe you started out taking something seriously, but then a week into it, you’ve forgotten. Now you’re just thinking about how uncomfortable it is. If we forget the importance of something — and if something doesn’t really matter to us, we shouldn’t commit to it — if we forget, we won’t have a good reason to push into discomfort.
- We get down on ourselves or give up in disappointment. When we falter, when we don’t meet our ideals or expectations, when we mess up in some way … it’s actually not a big deal. Just learn from it and start again. But instead, we often beat ourselves up, feel super disappointed in ourselves. This isn’t helpful, and can actually sabotage our efforts.
- There are too many barriers. This is the simplest one, but we often forget. Let’s say I want to start eating healthier, and even have a plan for how I want to eat. But then morning comes, I’m hungry and in a hurry, and I’m supposed to make a tofu scramble, which requires a lot of chopping of vegetables, cooking, cleaning … too many things to do right now when I’m hungry, so I’ll just eat the bagel that will take 2 minutes to make. This is a big problem with most things we want to stick to — there are barriers that are too high for when we’re tired, rushed, or not feeling like it. Driving 20 minutes to the gym, having to declutter the living room before you meditate, having a lot of distractions when you write, anything that requires more than 5 minutes of prep time before we can get started … it’s too high of a barrier.
OK, so those are the reasons we don’t stick to things. Many of you are pretty familiar with these, but it’s good to be reminded, and it’s a smart idea to give them some consideration. Why do we let these obstacles continue to trip us up? Aren’t there good solutions?
Yes, there are — and they’re not all that difficult to implement, if we just consciously decide to do them and then take action to remember them and make them happen. Let’s take a look.
Overcome These Barriers, Get Better at Sticking to Things
- Take it super seriously. Is this important enough to commit to? Do you really want it, enough to push into discomfort when things get difficult? Consider this for a moment or two before deciding to try to stick to something. Then give it the effort that something important deserves — write it down. Make a plan, even if it’s just a short one. Commit to someone else. Set up reminders. Have a time when you’re going to do it every day. Clear a space to do that, set things up. Don’t take it lightly.
- Make sure you don’t forget. How will you remember when the time comes to do it? Where will you be, what will you be doing, when it’s time to meditate, or write, or exercise, or eat your healthy lunch? Put a reminder note or other visual reminder there. This is really important, because as we start to do something new, it’s too easy to forget. Put up multiple reminders, including one on your phone and one on your computer. If it’s important enough to commit to, it’s important enough to create these reminders.
- Relish the pushing into discomfort & uncertainty. We have to retrain ourselves to see discomfort and uncertainty as a signal to practice and get better at being in discomfort, instead of a signal to run away. Our minds habitually want to get away from discomfort and uncertainty, but there’s no good reason to do that. We won’t die or be hurt because we’re eating broccoli or doing a few pushups (unless you have a serious medical condition, of course — always check with a doctor if you do). There’s no need to panic and run when we’re uncomfortable. Instead, we can even start to relish this practice opportunity, to see it as a delicious experience of getting better at something, of learning and finding a way to open up to discomfort.
- See temptation as a signal to practice. In the same way, each time we have temptation, we can train ourselves to see it as a signal to practice staying in discomfort without needing to relieve it by giving in to the temptation. At a party where there’s chocolate cake (and you’re committed to a healthy eating plan)? Say no to the cake but hell yes to the opportunity to stay in the discomfort of not giving in to temptation. Say hell yes to the chance to explore what that’s like, to find joy and gratitude in the middle of it.
- Set boundaries to recognize your rationalizations. We can train ourselves, too, to become aware of when we’re rationalizing. It’s hard to see sometimes, because we’re so used to just rationalizing in the background, and allowing ourselves to believe it without any conscious thought. So to make it obvious that we’re rationalizing, it’s helpful to have firm boundaries, because then we see when the rationalizations are trying to convince us to cross the boundaries. For example, if you say, “I’m only going to eat between 11am and 6pm,” then it’s obvious when you’re trying to convince yourself to eat at 9pm. Other examples of boundaries: “I’m only going to watch two TV shows, and only after 8pm,” “I only eat hearty salads for lunch,” “I go for a walk or run every day when I get off work,” or “I meditate when I wake up, before I open my computer or phone.” When you set these hard boundaries, you see yourself trying to rationalize. When you realize this, just don’t let yourself believe the rationalization. They sound convincing, but they’re sabotaging you.
- Don’t renegotiate in the moment. Just don’t let yourself. Make the plan the day before (or at the beginning of the month, or the week, etc.) but don’t let yourself decide in the moment. You’re too prone to put it off or try to get out of discomfort. Instead, tell yourself that you can’t renegotiate for a week (or a month). Only after that period can you sit down and give it some thought, and decide whether you want to recommit.
- Relish the opening up to things you dislike. When you find yourself committed to doing something you dislike, it’s easy to try to get out of it, or resent having to do it. Instead, we can train ourselves to shift our mental attitude, and see it as an opportunity to practice open our minds up to this experience. What can we be grateful for right now, in the middle of this experience? How can we see this experience that we don’t like as a gift? How can we learn to see the deliciousness in this experience, instead of focusing on what we don’t like? Relish this opportunity!
- Reconnect to why it’s important. Every day, as you’re about to do this thing you’ve committed to, ask yourself why. Why is this important to you? Why have you devoted yourself to it, and is it worth devoting yourself fully to it? Can you commit wholeheartedly to it? Does this matter to you for a reason that’s bigger than your discomfort? Reconnect your actions to your devotion.
- Practice self compassion. When you mess up, when you are less than ideal, see when this causes you pain and difficulty. Give yourself some self compassion — actually give yourself a loving wish for an end to your struggle, a loving wish for peace, a loving wish for happiness. Instead of seeing this as a reason you suck, see it as a reason to love yourself. Then find something to learn from the experience, and start again. It’s no big deal.
- Remove as many barriers as you can. You’re fully committed, you’ve set up reminders, you know why this is important to you, you’ve set hard boundaries, and you’re ready to practice with your discomfort and temptations and rationalizing … now remove as many barriers as you can, to make it easier on yourself. Can you prepare everything ahead of time, so that when it comes time to do it, you just start? Can you make your meals on Sunday, so weekday lunches are just heating up a bowl of your veggie chili? Can you get your yoga mat and clothes ready, along with music or a yoga video, so that when you’re done with work, you can just change and press play? Can you remove distractions the night before, so that when you wake up to write, there’s just you and your writing program, and nothing else? Find your barriers, and remove them all. Eliminate all excuses to start.
I believe that if you implemented these steps, you’d be much better at sticking to something. What do you want to stick to for the rest of this month? For each month next year? Consider them now, figure out why they’re important to you and whether that’s an important enough reason to push into the discomfort of being consistent. Then commit yourself fully, wholeheartedly, with all of your being. You are worth it.