How to sustain a good habit for a long time? How to sustain a good habit for a long time?
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How to sustain a good habit for a long time?

Written by :
Aashish Dhawan

Starting a new habit and keeping it for a longer period of time are two completely different things. Starting a new habit is easy; maintaining it is the difficult part. The motivation with which we started a new habit is not enough to keep it going. Motivation is like a wave, rising and subsiding in intensity with time, while we need persistence to keep doing the same thing again and again, irrespective of our motivation level or mood swings. Also, with time, our reasons for motivation may no longer exist, and hence, our reason for starting and continuing a new habit also dies when the original motivation is no longer there.

Almost everyone can start a new habit tomorrow, like we do on New Year’s Eve, but almost no one sees the other end of it, where we feel like we have accomplished our goals. Do you remember that years ago, you made a promise to yourself that you would wake up early in the morning, and yet you have not been able to do that consistently to this date? How many more promises are there that you made yourself, but you are not able to keep doing them regularly? How would your life have turned out if you were able to maintain those good habits?

Once we have started a new habit, we need a system to keep going. We need a method to handle situations when motivation is low. We need a recovery plan when we start to miss days or break the continuity chain. We need a system to keep going when our schedule becomes monotonous and we do not get fun out of that habit any more. We need to keep going when people around us no longer want to continue their habits that they started with us.

We are going to introduce the R.A.C.E. Framework to sustain a new habit for a long time. This can help us maintain new habits once we have started them and save us from abandoning things that are good for us. This framework states that we need to

  1. Recover from a setback as early as possible.
  2. Take accountability seriously.
  3. Cultivate the habit.
  4. Embrace Inefficiencies

In the last chapter, we started two new good habits: starting to exercise and writing something for our book daily. We are going to use the same habits as an example and will see if we can sustain these habits for a long time.

R: Recover Quickly

The single most important factor that is going to determine if a habit will stick with us or not is our consistency. First, it starts with dwindling motivation, where we are generally not in the mood to spend time on our new habit, and we start making excuses about how much less time we have or something that just came up that is more important than our commitment to our habits. Eventually, we miss a day, and our consistency is broken. That one missing day now becomes two, and then three. Eventually, our new habit dies.

The key factor here is to recover quickly. If we have missed our days, we need to bring our consistency back on track. If we think we have our motivation weakened, we need to do something about this.

One principle we can follow is: never miss twice. If you have gotten into the habit of writing daily and have missed a day due to some unknown circumstance, try not to miss it another day. If you have skipped your gym workout routine, try to make sure you show up the very next day. A missed day should be treated like a crisis. Our first priority should be to avoid it all together, but if this happens, it should become our priority number one the next day.

The second principle we can follow is to recover the missing days. For example, if we have promised ourselves to write one page of our book daily but we have missed a day, we can try to recover that by writing two pages instead of one the next day. Maybe on weekends we can spend a little extra time and write for the days we missed, therefore completing our weekly writing target. This might not be possible in some cases; for example, there is not much benefit to doing exercise for missing days on the same day. But if we work four days a week and we have missed one workout session, maybe we can do it on rest days and complete our weekly target.

Here, it is important to understand the difference between recoverable and non-recoverable time. As the example above stated, you can recover time to write pages that we missed, but you cannot do exercise for one week in one single day. It has to be done on time; therefore, for physical exercise, you cannot recover time lost due to inconsistency. Similarly, eating healthy is a non-recoverable habit. You cannot eat healthy food for a week in one single day; it has to be done daily. Habits that are non-recoverable should always be given priority over others.

A: Taking Accountability Seriously

The problem with accountability in our case, when it comes to sustaining new habits, is that we are the ones who are responsible for the execution of our tasks, and we are also the judges of our performance. We know that we are not keeping our promises by doing what is supposed to be done to keep our habit alive, but we will let ourselves go without any repercussions because that is what we want at that moment, and we have all the power to do so. We need to find a solution for that, i.e., we need to find a way to keep ourselves accountable.

We have discussed in the last chapter that there are a few ways to make ourselves accountable, which we will not discuss in the current chapter as they have been explained previously, but those methods have been summarised below.

  1. Habit Tracker: A weekly or monthly habit tracker works as a record of your consistency. This is one of the easiest things you can do to hold yourself accountable. Try not to break the chain of consistency, and if it breaks, try to recover quickly.
  2. Finding an accountability partner: Having an accountability partner will hugely improve your chances of success. Change your environment, change the people around you, and make someone an accountability partner. If you keep missing your goals, it will be difficult for you to face your accountability partner, and this guilt will push you towards your goals.
  3. The guilt of breaking promises in front of yourself and others could be a motivating factor for some people, especially when they have made public commitments.
  4. And joining a group of people for social accountability where the community around you keeps you accountable for your promises. This is one of the reasons why people do well in an institution’s environment but fail to maintain those good habits once they are out of that environment, which keeps them accountable.

There are times when even these methods are not sufficient. It is then time to revisit our motivation for starting that new habit. If nothing is working for you, may the motivation due to which you decided to start a new habit have died. When the fire has been extinguished and not even sparks are left, it will be difficult to revive our habits again. But if our original motivation is still there, we can revive our habit.

C: Cultivate

The one major factor contributing to the sustainability of a new habit for a long time is the way we cultivate it during various phases. It has to be treated differently when we are in the habit formation phase and differently when we are in the habit continuation phase. Also, we need to treat it differently when we need to raise the bar and become professionals at it.

A habit needs focus, energy, and attention, of which we all have a limited pool in a day. Therefore, we need to focus on the right habits and make time for them. This time, it has to come from our other habits. Maybe Netflix has to be replaced by reading and writing habits. Maybe we need to go to bed early and wake up an hour earlier than our regular schedule to make time for exercise. There has to be a conscientious effort to make time for our habits. We might have to learn to say no to a lot of things that keep us away from our habits. Our calendar needs to have some time blocked exclusively for our habits.

We are designed to like things that are not too easy for us or too hard. If it is too easy, there is no excitement in doing that, and if it is too hard, we are not going to do it anyway. This zone, where things are neither too hard nor too easy and they appear challenging to us but we believe we can achieve, is called the Goldilock Zone, and this is where we need to operate. For example, if we have become comfortable with writing one page for our book, we may start targeting 1.5 pages per day. Also, if doing 50 pushups has become easy for us, we can start targeting 75 pushups a day. This keeps the excitement alive in the habit continuation phase.

The other major factor in keeping our habits alive is our environment. We need to keep refining our environment in a way that facilitates our habits. If you have a friend who is also writing a book and is on track, the chances of you completing your book increase multifold. If you have a friend in the gym who is trying to compete in a professional tournament, you are more likely to show up in the gym as well.

A lot of times, our environment plays a bigger role in the development and continuation of our habits than our internal motivations and desires. Therefore, we need to be aware of it and should refine it continuously. We should also not shy away from spending some money on our environment or our new habits.

E: Embrace Inefficiency

There is no doubt that we will miss a few days when we cannot spend time on our new habits. Maybe we are on a business trip, and it is hard to go to the gym that day. Maybe we are on vacation and we are not writing anything for our book in those days. On the other hand, there are some days when we feel motivated, and instead of writing one page for that day, we might end up writing 5–10 pages in one go. All of these scenarios are acceptable because we are not machines that switch on and off as per their programming on specific days at a specific time.

We need to embrace 1% days. 1% days are those when you feel demotivated or cannnot keep your habit chain going and it feels like you produced just 1% of the of the outcome that you would have produced in a normal day. This is ok; we just need to make sure we are consistent. If you are unable to write a full page, just write a sentence. If you are unable to go to the gym, maybe just do a quick workout in the hotel room itself. Just keep going, embrace 1% efficiency, and remember that habits start to die when you start missing your days; therefore, try to maintain your habit continuity chain. It is better to operate at 1% efficiency than to do nothing. You might not be feeling well today, but you can recover tomorrow, as not all days are equal.

Common Pitfalls and How to Overcome Those

When you decide to keep going with your new habit and RACE towards your goal, a lot of things will come in your way to derail your plan that are not under your control, or your brain will try to convince you not to push yourself harder and get out of your comfort zone. You will try to get back into your previous state because that is where you feel comfortable, and if you give in to all these temptations, soon your continuity chain will break and slowly your new habit will die. In this section, we will discuss some pitfalls and how we can overcome them.

I do not have time.

This is one of the most common excuses people give when they are not able to pick up a new habit or a new responsibility. You will hear this excuse a lot in your personal and professional lives in one form or another, but the truth is, everyone has an equal amount of time and productivity, but the outputs of different people differ greatly. Besides, what is more probable—that you do not have enough time or that you are not able to manage your time properly?

You will do a huge service to yourself if you could eliminate this sentence from your life: “I do not have time.” Or at least replace it with “I will make time.” This one tiny change will have a huge impact on your career and will make you stand out in a crowd of countless people who always complain that they do not have time. It might look impossible at first, but you can definitely make time for things that really matter to you. It is just a question of priorities.

On the surface, at first glance, it might look like you really have a packed schedule and there is no room left for you to pick up new activities. But if you look deeper, you might figure out that you are wasting a lot of time on low-productive items or that you are wasting too much time on other things. How is it possible for you to binge-watch a TV series if you do not have 20 minutes to read or write? How come you can waste countless hours in a day but not have 20 minutes to spend on physical exercise? You might have to say no to a few other activities if you are still struggling to make time for new habits.

If you want to explore more on how to manage your time effectively, please read Chapter 1 again, which has some practical tips to prioritise your work items and make more room in your calendar for you to pick new habits.

I do not have energy after a day’s work.

This could be a genuine reason for not being able to devote time or energy to a new habit you want to maintain. Your day job might leave you exhausted with little energy to spend on more tasks. But here is my take: this new habit of yours is supposed to bring joy into your life. Remember, in the last chapter, we said that the new habit should be satisfying? This new habit is supposed to make you happy; it should be able to recharge you after your work day drains your energy. You should feel excited about spending time on your new habit, and if you are able to make time and block a time slot in your calendar for this new habit, there is no excuse left for you to not do things that you like.

I’ll do it tomorrow.

This is one of the most common and dangerous excuses, which will break the chain of continuity. Everything will be going as per your plan, and you will be consistent in your efforts towards your new habit, but one day your mind will tempt you to skip for just one day, and it will tell you to do it tomorrow again. There could be multiple excuses that your brain will give you to skip for just one day. Maybe because your day did not go well, maybe you are too tired to do another activity, maybe skipping for one day will not do any harm to you, etc. You need to be very careful with these excuses that your brain is using to convince you. If you give in to this temptation, before you realise it, your one-day  excuse will turn into days, then weeks, and then months, and before you can recover from harm, you might give up on your habit altogether.

There is one trick I found useful to fight this temptation. When your brain tells you not to do a task tomorrow to break your chain of continuity, do not fight with it; do not try to reason with it. Just tell it, “OK, let’s skip our new habit for just one day, but let’s not do it today. Let me complete just today’s task, and we can skip this tomorrow.”. You will find this an easy way to convince yourself to keep going, and when tomorrow comes, do the same thing again. Tell your brain not to break the chain of continuity today, but tomorrow. Keep repeating this, and then your cheat day will arrive. Then you are giving yourself a break anyway.

Try this trick with your gym-going habit, and when you are about to skip a day, tell your brain, “Not today but tomorrow.” Just follow the chain of continuity for one more day.

2 minutes of temptation or fighting procrastination

How many times have you made a promise to yourself that you will wake up early every single day from tomorrow onward? But when the alarm rings next morning, you tell yourself, Let me just sleep for 2-4 more minutes, and you will get up from bed shortly thereafter, and suddenly you find that 2 more hours have passed and you are still sleeping. This happens again and again, and years have passed and you still failed to develop this habit of waking up early from bed.

When you want to push yourself out of your comfort zone, the first two minutes are important. This is when your brain will try to convince you not to do it. If you start listening to it and begin to reason with it, you are most probably going to lose the battle, and your brain will successfully convince you to not do it. Be careful for these first two minutes. Do not listen to your brain for these 2 minutes; do not reason with it; shut it down and jump straight to the task you are supposed to do. This is a very effective trick to fight procrastination.

Try it tomorrow morning. As soon as the alarm rings, just jump straight out of bed; do not start a conversation with your brain. Shut it down for 2 minutes, do not listen to it, and start doing the activity that you are supposed to do.

I am not good enough, or I no longer enjoy it.

If this is the excuse you are giving yourself, the problem might be that you are not able to cultivate your habit as time passes. This problem generally arises when your habit has matured and you are able to maintain a chain of continuity, but as time passes, you no longer enjoy spending time and effort on this habit; you feel stuck at the same place, and things have now become monotonous for you. At this point, you need to raise the bar and work actively to cultivate the habit and find bigger challenges that force you to push beyond your comfort zone again. If you want to know more about how to cultivate a habit, please check “C: Cultivate ” section of this chapter.

Starting too many things at once

Sometimes, when people decide to change their lives, they want to do everything at once. For example, their plan might look like this:

“From tomorrow, I am going to wake up early at 5:00 AM and then go to the gym. I’ll start eating healthy, and in the evening I’ll go to my music class.”

The common mistake here is to pick up a lot of new habits and start everything together. This is not sustainable and will never work out. At best, you will be able to follow your new schedule for a few days or a few weeks, and then everything will break. Every new habit you want to start will need special attention from you to maintain, and you might have to say no to a lot of other things to make room for even one single new habit. Therefore, try not to pick up a lot of new things at once. Start slowly and add other new habits gradually.

The perfect day or nothing

Another common mistake people make is wanting to have perfect days where all their plans run perfectly throughout the day. They want to wake up on time, go to the gym or office on time, get back home on time, and then spend time on activities as planned. If something does not go according to plan in the morning, they will ruin the rest of the day because the start was not good, and if they are not able to do one thing properly, they will also lose motivation for other tasks of the day  since this is not the perfect outcome for them.

Try to fight this situation. If you have booked two timeslots for two different activities and the first one does not go as planned, try not to ruin the second one. Do it with the same energy or vigour as you would have on a perfect day.

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