Getting Beyond the Habit Honeymoon

Starting a new habit can be exciting, but how do you keep going once it's become tough and boring?

Getting Beyond the Habit Honeymoon
Habits are the automatic activities that keep us productive and healthy without too much thinking. They can keep us on track even when we aren't motivated.(Nilnanni200/Shutterstock)
Mollie Donghia

Habits. It’s the small decisions we make every hour of the day that predict how great or little our success, productivity, and focus can be.

I choose to wake up an hour before anyone else in my house so I can have peace and quiet to start my day. I track my daily exercise on a simple chart so that I can maintain a healthy, active lifestyle. We have a set time each day when the lights turn out in our kids’ bedrooms so that my husband and I can have uninterrupted time for conversation and productivity.

My regular habits are the driving force that fuels me toward something greater—less stress, more intentionality with work, and greater overall well-being. I’ve learned how to perform certain habits regularly, not just because I’ve done them over and over again, but because of the results those actions deliver.

When we develop healthy habits (particularly in the categories of exercise, diet, and sleep), we’re able to create and sustain a healthier lifestyle, which has been a personal motivator for me.

Even though I’ve developed a bank of healthy habits that I do regularly, I’ve found that beginning a new habit isn’t the hard part—maintaining it is.

Habits often have a 21-day honeymoon period. This is when the habit is fresh, we’ve never missed it, and we are excited about realizing our goal.

But then life happens, challenges arise, motivation dwindles, and the honeymoon stage ends—leaving us uncertain whether we can stick to our new habit.

So why do we put forth this Herculean effort when starting a habit, to find ourselves giving up once those first few weeks are over?

Failing Points of a New Habit

I’ve had success with making certain daily habits a regular part of my life. Several years ago, after having my second baby and transitioning to staying at home, I felt the rising stress of demands from my two very small children. I knew that staying in bed until one of them woke me up and only getting out of my pajamas by mid-morning was a big factor in how the rest of my day went.

So I tried to change two small things: wake up an hour before my children and get myself dressed for the day. I’m going on nearly 5 years of these habits and can say that I’ve done them about 98 percent of the time. These two small changes have had a cascade effect on this time in my life and have become automatic.

But despite success in some habits, I’ve started countless other habits only to end up failing after a month.

So why do habits fail? There are two main failing points: When there’s no immediate reward, the habit loses its luster, and when we take on too much too soon, we set an unrealistic goal.

No Immediate Reward

Starting a new habit can be relatively easy. We set a goal. The benefits of the goal fuel us with motivation to begin. But many of the habits we begin (like eating well or flossing) don’t offer instant gratification. The reward is more long-term and only as great as the time invested in the habit.
I’ve never been great at the habit of flossing my teeth. It’s a tedious task that doesn’t give an immediate reward, just sore gums. So whatever the task may be, it’s through the constant persistence of performing the habit that the reward is found.

Too Much Too Soon

Another reason habits fail is that we try to take on too much too soon. It’s a classic case of biting off more than we can chew. The key with forming habits is to develop the muscle memory of action, not to make huge progress in one week.

I’m constantly telling my children, “slow and steady wins the race, fast and sloppy makes mistakes.” The same is true when we begin new habits. If we’re too quick to add another new habit before one is mastered, we become overloaded and increase our risk of defeat.

In the first few days and weeks of a new habit, we’re fueled by the excitement of change. It’s easy to overcommit when you’re in this honeymoon period.

4 Tips to Making a Habit

Starting a new habit and getting it stick long enough to become automatic takes some determination—and a few simple tips.

Start Small

It’s easy to think that beginning a handful of new habits will magically transform your life from chaotic to tranquil—and sometimes they do. James Clear, author of the #1 New York Times bestselling book “Atomic Habits," says that in order to make habits stick, you need to start small, so small that you can’t say no.
Rather than setting a goal of doing 50 pushups, aim for doing 5 a day. More motivation isn’t what’s going to make the habit stick, it’s the consistency of learning how to perform a task until it’s automatic.

Be Realistic

Social media has saturated our lives with a glorified account of other people’s success—minus all the hardships and failures. Research and studies that investigate the legitimacy and reality of social media have found that much of what women perceive, from Instagram in particular, leads to social comparison and body dissatisfaction.

It’s no wonder we come up with unrealistic goals for ourselves. Instead, take time to think about the season of life you’re currently in. What small change would likely make a big impact if done well? For me, during that season of motherhood with a baby and toddler, it was having an hour of quiet time before beginning the busyness of the day.

What works for others may not be the magic ticket for you.

Make It Visual

One of the most effective ways I’ve found to make a new habit successful is by using a visual tracker to measure my progress. Research shows that children in a classroom are more motivated when they can see their progress, and it’s no surprise that adults are the same way. Our brains release the feel-good chemical dopamine when we see advancement toward our goals being met. Why else do many people make to-do lists and write down even the simplest of tasks just for the sheer enjoyment of crossing something off?

Prepare for Challenges

Have a plan for the inevitable challenges to come. For me, if I miss a day of exercising and can't color in that day’s box on my visual chart, it motivates me to make sure I don’t miss two days in a row. Having one off day doesn’t mean your habit has failed. It’s important to learn to recognize what caused you to skip that habit, and determine to change your attitude, schedule, or circumstances so you have more success tomorrow.
Mollie (and her husband, Mike) blog at This Evergreen Home where they share their experience with living simply, intentionally, and relationally in this modern world. You can follow along by subscribing to their twice-weekly newsletter.
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