Tell me if this sounds familiar:
You look at your life and decide you need to change something. It might be eating healthier foods, getting your papers organized, or not watching so much TV. At first you’re excited about it, especially when you try it out and you actually start to make some progress. Things are going well.
Then a problem crops up. Maybe you’re invited to dinner and the menu is so far from your healthy eating list, you can’t see it from there without a high-powered telescope. Or you have an important engagement in the evening and don’t get home until 10:30–too late to easily do your filing for the day. Or you find out there’s a marathon of your favorite show ever airing over the weekend.
What often happens to us in these situations is that we make an exception. It’s so inconvenient–nearly impossible, we sometimes tell ourselves–to keep with our program that we can make one completely reasonable exception. And then another exceptional situation comes up, and another, and pretty soon we realize we haven’t been making progress at all and give up in despair.
When this happens, it isn’t that the universe is against us: in fact, this is exactly how we should expect things to go if we try to break a habit. By definition, doing things by habit means taking the easy road, and so breaking a habit–or forming a new one–means taking the difficult road.
To put it another way, habits aren’t made and broken by only changing our behavior when it’s convenient to do so: the real changes in our behavior come when we have to push really hard to maintain our new intentions. It doesn’t take much effort or thought to, for instance, keep up with filing papers when we have plenty of time and no interruptions. The real test–and the time when we have the greatest opportunity to change our own mental processes–comes when things get inconvenient, when we’re tired, distraught, distracted, embarrassed, busy, or when we don’t have all of our materials or tools on hand. When we choose to say “I’m going to stick with my goals anyway” in this periods, we become able to change even deeply-ingrained habits. But when we wait for change to become convenient, we’re likely to be left waiting a very, very long time.
By the way, one of the best ways to deal with inconvenient situations is to plan ahead of time for them: see “How Preparation Enables Stronger Willpower.”
Photo by all-i-oli