When we decide to create a new habit—exercise, healthy eating, meditation, writing—we can get excited and optimistic. We may imagine how it will go perfectly.
This is such a hopeful time! Unfortunately, reality has other plans.
Our perfect idea of how our new habit will go is pretty much never how it actually goes. We might do really well for a few days or even a couple of weeks, but inevitably we’ll miss a day or two because of tiredness, busyness, sickness, visitors, forgetting, etc. And then things get derailed—not because of the interruption, but because of our perfect idea of how we hoped the habit would go.
This is one of the main obstacles to forming habits. Our hopeful idea of how it will go, and then our disappointment and frustration with ourselves when it doesn’t go that way.
The idea that we should be super consistent and perfect in our habit attempts can derail us.
Here’s what typically happens:
We think, “I’m going to start doing X every day!” Then our minds get excited and we start imagining how it will go, and how it’s going to make our lives better and make us a better person.
We start trying to do X every day.
The reality doesn’t match the imagination in some way: Doing X is not as fun as we thought it would be, or we miss a couple of days, or we repeatedly miss a couple of days.
We get frustrated by the way things are going. We are disappointed in ourselves. We’re discouraged. We eventually quit and our self-image gets hurt.
You can see from this sequence that the problem isn’t missing a couple of days—it’s the expectation or fantasy that we had about how it would go, and the resulting disappointment, frustration, and discouragement that has us quit and feel badly about ourselves.
The problem isn’t the reality, it’s the expectation that things will go a certain way.
How could we find a different way?
Reality-Based Habit Change
What if we simply said, “Let me try to bring a daily ritual of doing X into my life, and be curious about what it will be like”?
So there doesn’t have to be a fantasy that it will go perfectly or brilliantly. We don’t know how it will be. But we can bring an intention to do it and a curiosity about what that will be like.
Then we start doing it. We miss a day, but this isn’t a cause for discouragement. It’s a cause for curiosity—what got in the way? What would it be like to start again today?
Each day becomes a lovely place of learning.
Then “successful” days and “failure” days aren’t really binary results of success/failure, but instead a rich place of curiosity and learning.
What would that be like for you?
This story was originally published on the Zen Habits Blog.