We all do it in some form: We tell ourselves we’re going to do something, and then end up not sticking to that plan. As the season of New Year’s resolutions is upon us, it’s worth reflecting on why this is.
Maybe some of these scenarios will sound familiar to you:
- You try to stick to a certain diet, end up breaking it in a day, and then abandon it.
- You try to work hard on a project and stop procrastinating, and then get distracted and your plan fails.
- You try to meditate (or do yoga, read, exercise, etc.) every morning, and then one morning you’re in a rush or are tired and skip it. Then you skip it again the next day, and eventually quit.
- You aim to stay on top of your email, or finally tackle that clutter, but your plan doesn’t even get off the ground.
So what’s going on? Are we just lazy people, with no discipline? Are we destined to spend life on the couch eating junk food, watching Netflix, and hating ourselves?
I find this a fascinating subject, and I’ve been observing it in myself and in the thousands of people I’ve worked with. Here’s what I’ve found.
Why We Don’t Stick With Our Plans
There isn’t always just one reason for failure. Sometimes it’s multiple reasons at once, or different reasons depending on the situation or the type of person you are.
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 and assume that’s enough to make it happen. I somehow think it’s going to be easy, despite all the past evidence that shows I only succeed when I take goals seriously and put in the effort. When we “half commit” to something, it’s like only being half in a relationship—with that kind of commitment, sooner or later it will fail.
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 new habit gets uncomfortable, we stop enjoying it and make up excuses to put it off. When we face a challenge like exercise or big tasks at work, there’s a lot of discomfort involved, so we find reasons to put it off. We don’t like uncertainty and discomfort, so we try to get out of it.
We give in to temptation out of habit. Temptations are all around us: the temptation of chocolate cake when we’re on a diet, the temptation of TV when we’re trying to go to bed earlier, the temptation of the internet when we intend to meditate. Our habitual response is to just give in, rationalize, and let the temptation rule our choices.
We rationalize giving in. When something gets difficult, our minds start to rationalize why it’s OK to give up and give in. Our brains can be very, very good at rationalizing: “Just one more won’t hurt,” or, “You’ve worked hard, you deserve it,” or, “It’s a special occasion, this is an exception.” Those all sound reasonable, except when they sabotage our plans. Once we start to believe these rationalizations, sticking to anything goes out the door.
We renegotiate. When the moment comes to do something difficult, we negotiate with ourselves and say, “Well, I’m still going to do it, but in five 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, a habitual response, and a way to avoid something. The habit of renegotiating with ourselves erodes self-discipline and trust in ourselves.
We avoid things we dislike. This seems natural; if I don’t want to face an uncomfortable task, I’ll put it off. But the problem is that with every habit or 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 is hurting us. We don’t need to like everything about an experience in order to commit to it. We’re stronger than that.
We forget why it’s important. Maybe you started out taking a new habit seriously, but then a week into it, you’ve forgotten why. Now you’re just thinking about how uncomfortable it is. If we forget the importance of the task, we won’t have a good reason to push into discomfort. And if something doesn’t really matter to us, we shouldn’t commit to it in the first place.
We get down on ourselves. When we falter and don’t meet our ideals or expectations, it’s actually not a big deal. Just learn from it and start again. But instead, we often beat ourselves up, feeling extremely disappointed in ourselves. This isn’t helpful, and it can sabotage our efforts and motivation.
There are too many barriers. This is a big problem with most things we want to stick to—even small barriers are too big when we’re tired, rushed, or don’t feel like doing anything. Driving 20 minutes to the gym, having to declutter the living room before you meditate, having a lot of distractions where you work—anything that requires more than five minutes of prep time before we can get started can be too high of a barrier.
So those are the reasons we don’t stick to things. It’s a good idea to give them some deeper consideration and see which ones are holding you back. Why do we let these obstacles continue to trip us up? Are there any solutions? Yes—and the solutions are actually quite simple.
How to Get Better at Sticking to Plans
These solutions are not all that difficult to implement if we just consciously commit to them and then take action to bring the results.
Take your goal seriously. Is the goal important enough to commit to? Do you want it enough to tolerate discomfort when it gets difficult? Consider this before trying to stick to something. Then give it the effort that it deserves. Make a plan, set a reminder, and commit. Clear the time and space to do it every day. Remove barriers. Don’t take it lightly.
Make sure you don’t forget. How will you remember when the time comes to implement the new habit? Where will you be when it’s time to do it? Put a reminder note or other visual cue there. This is really important because when we start to do something new, it’s easy to forget. If it’s important enough to commit to, it’s important enough to create these reminders.
Relish the discomfort and uncertainty. We have to retrain ourselves to see discomfort and uncertainty as a signal to practice and get better, instead of a signal to run away. There’s no good reason to run away. 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). There’s no need to panic and run when we’re uncomfortable. Instead, we can see it as part of the process of getting better, learning, and improving ourselves.
See temptation as a signal to practice. In the same way as discomfort, each time we have temptation, we can train ourselves to see it as a signal to practice getting better instead of giving in to temptation. For instance, when you’re trying to eat healthier and you wind up at a party where there’s chocolate cake, say “no” to the cake but “yes” to the opportunity to practice refusing temptation. Say “yes” to the chance to explore what that’s like—and find joy and gratitude in the middle of it.
Set boundaries to recognize your rationalizations. It’s hard to see our own rationalizations sometimes because we’re so used to allowing ourselves to cheat. So it’s helpful to have firm boundaries, because then we clearly see when our mind is trying to sabotage us. For example, if you say, “I’m only going to eat between 11 a.m. and 6 p.m.,” then it’s obvious when you’re trying to convince yourself to eat at 9 p.m. When you set hard boundaries, you see yourself trying to rationalize. When you realize this, just don’t let yourself fall into it. Rationalizations 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 week, the month, etc.), but don’t let yourself decide in the moment. You’re too prone to put it off, or you’re trying to get out of discomfort. Instead, tell yourself that you can’t renegotiate for a set period of time. Only after that period can you sit down and give it some thought and decide whether you want to recommit.
See this opportunity as a gift. When you find yourself committed to 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 opening our minds to this experience. What can we be grateful for right now, in the middle of this experience? How can we see it as a gift instead of focusing on what we dislike? Relish the opportunity.
Reconnect with why it’s important. Every day, as you’re about to do the 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? Reconnect your actions to your devotion.
Practice self-compassion. When you mess up or feel inadequate, observe how this causes you pain and difficulty. Then offer yourself some self-compassion. Give yourself a loving wish for peace, happiness, and an end to your struggle. Instead of seeing this as a reason you’re no good, 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 face your discomfort and temptations. Now remove as many barriers as you can to make it easier on yourself. Can you prepare things ahead of time? Can you make your healthy meals for the week on Sunday? Can you get your exercise gear ready so you can head straight to the gym after work? Find your barriers, and remove them all. Eliminate excuses.
I believe that if we implement these steps, we can be much more successful at sticking to new habits. What do you want to stick to for the rest of this month? For the next year? Consider it now, figure out why it’s important to you, and whether it’s worth the discomfort of self-discipline. Then commit yourself fully and wholeheartedly, with all of your being. You’re worth it.