I’ve coached thousands of people who want to change habits and I’ve found there’s a key difference between those who actually make changes and those who don’t.
That key difference is what I like to call “habit resilience.”
Habit resilience is the ability to bounce back when things don’t go as you planned, to stay positive, encourage and forgive yourself, and shake it off t0 start again afresh.
It’s the ability to learn and grow from struggles in the effort to establish new habits.
The opposite of habit resilience is getting discouraged when things don’t go as planned, beating yourself up, or trying not to think about it when you mess up. That means ignoring problems, complaining, blaming others, deciding you can’t change and hardening your harsh opinion of yourself.
Let’s look at one example:
I want to change my eating habits, which is pretty tough to do, so I set myself a plan to eat oats for breakfast, a salad for lunch, and scrambled tofu with veggies for dinner. Great! But then during the week, I have to go to a work get-together, a family party, a 3-day trip to New York, and then my daughter’s birthday party. All the plans went out the window on those days.
So at this point, I can give up, beat myself up, ignore the problem or, if I’ve developed habit resilience, I can shake myself off, make some adjustments to the plan. I can give myself some encouragement and start again, keeping a positive attitude the whole time.
This second approach will result in long-term change—if you can stick with it, there’s no change you can’t create.
That’s just one version of habit resilience, but you can see the difference between the first option and the second one.
So how do we develop habit resilience? Let’s take a look.
Developing Habit Resilience
The good news is that you can develop habit resilience. It’s a set of skills that can be developed with some practice. Here’s how.
Loosen your expectations.
When we start to make changes in our lives, we often have unrealistic expectations. Six-pack abs in four weeks!
But when we actually try to hit those expectations, we usually fall short. At least at first. Over the long run, we can often make greater changes than we think we can. But over the short term, the changes are small, and not very orderly. Change is messy.
So just expect things to go less than ideally. Don’t be too attached to how you expect things to go. Then when your expectations aren’t met, you can just take it in stride.
Learn the skill of adjusting.
If your diet plan doesn’t go as planned, it’s not necessarily a fault of yours—it may be the fault of the method or plan. How can you make it better to accommodate your life? Maybe you can get some accountability, set up some reminders, get rid of junk food from your house, and so on.
There are a thousand ways to adjust a plan or method. When things go wrong, look for a way to adjust. Don’t just give up.
Practice self-compassion and forgiveness.
This is so important, but most people have the opposite habit. When things go wrong, we often beat ourselves up. That reaction is unhelpful and can keep us stuck in old habits for years.
Instead, we need to learn to be kinder to ourselves when we don’t measure up to what we hope we’ll be. When we let ourselves down, it’s important to forgive ourselves. Be compassionate, see your own suffering and wish for relief from that suffering. Be loving to ourselves, no matter what we do.
Don’t ignore problems, face them with kindness.
Not forgiving ourselves is one problem, pretending our slip up didn’t happen is another.
If we’ve gone off our exercise plan or stopped meditating, don’t just ignore the problem because you don’t want to face it. Instead, turn towards the problem, and look at it with kindness.
It’s like a crying child—is it better to ignore the child and just hope that they’ll be quiet? That will just lead to more pain for both of you. Instead, give them a hug. Acknowledge their pain. Give them love. Be there for them. And do the same for yourself when you’re having difficulties.
Learn to encourage yourself.
I wrote recently about the importance of encouragement vs. discouragement. We need to practice this regularly. When you falter, can you encourage yourself? Can you stay positive in the face of failure? Can you look at it as another step in your growth, instead of failure?
Find encouragement from others.
In the same way, we can get encouragement from other people. Being in a program like my Sea Change program, with other people who are there to encourage you, is a good way to find that support. You can also ask for help from friends and family. Find a good friend who will help you get back on track, with love.
We are not alone—lots of others know what it’s like to struggle, and are willing to support us when we’re struggling.
Learn perseverance—keep coming back.
Stay positive when things go astray, and just keep coming back to the habit you want to change. Want to quit smoking but you backtracked when your father died? Get back on it as soon as you’re able. Come back with even more resolve. Commit yourself even deeper.
If you practice these skills, you’ll be able to handle difficulty that comes your way. Your path to change might be filled with obstacles, but nothing will stop you if you keep a positive attitude, keep coming back, and keep being compassionate with yourself
This is habit resilience. And it will change your entire life if you practice.
Leo Babauta is the author of six books, the writer of “Zen Habits,” a blog with over 2 million subscribers, and the creator of several online programs to help you master your habits. Visit ZenHabits.net