Before I learned how to change habits, I was stuck. I kept trying to change various habits — running, eating healthier, waking earlier, getting out of debt, ending procrastination — and I kept failing.
I got very good at failing, in fact.
Looking back on those days, given the power of retrospect, I now know that I did everything wrong. I was setting myself up for failure, and in failing often and not learning from those mistakes, I was learning to be good at failing. Failing became my habit.
And while I’m actually a fan of failing as a method for learning how to get better at something quickly, if you’re not learning from your failures, it’s not as useful. So in that spirit, I’d like to share what I’ve learned from my failures so that you might glean some useful information from my suffering.
How to Fail at Habits
I failed at creating new habits repeatedly. Here’s what I did, and what most people also do:
- Take on multiple habits at once. We have lots of things we want to change, so we try to change them all at once. Of course, this spreads our focus and energy thin, so that we can’t give our entire focus to any one habit. Habits are hard to change, and spreading yourself thin is a good way to make sure you fail.
- Bite off more than you can chew. Whether you do one habit or many at a time, try to do as much with each habit as possible, so that it takes up a lot of energy and seems really hard. Don’t run for 5 minutes, try doing 30. That way it’ll be a big chunk of your day that will get pushed to tomorrow when other urgent things come up, it will take a lot of your physical and mental energy, and it’ll be something you dread doing because it’s so difficult. Don’t meditate for 5 minutes, meditate for 60. Do 90 minutes of yoga. Change your entire diet all at once. These are excellent ways to fail.
- Tackle habits you don’t enjoy. Because habits should be something you do for moral reasons — they’re good for you! And so it doesn’t matter if you hate them, and if you dread doing them after awhile, because you’re going to be disciplined. That works extremely seldomly, so it’s a great strategy.
- Keep it a secret. Don’t tell anyone you’re changing your habit. That way, if you mess up, it won’t be embarrassing. This means that you secretly think you’re going to mess up, which is another excellent way to fail.
- Jump right into it. Decide today to start running, and just do it! This way you are treating it as if it’s nothing, and not a big commitment. You don’t plan for obstacles, don’t set up a support system, don’t give yourself rewards, and treat the habit change as lightly as you do putting on your socks. And when you quit doing the habit, it will be no problem either.
- Don’t worry about how others have succeeded. Why read the success stories of other people? You know better than them. You can do it without learning from them. That’s what I used to think, at least.
- Don’t motivate yourself. You don’t need motivation if you have discipline. Discipline is something you have or don’t have, but motivation is something you can actually do.
- Give yourself plenty of opportunities to give up. Trying to eat healthy? Have your cupboards and fridge filled with junk food, and have it surround you at work, and go to restaurants filled with fried foods and sugary sweets. You’ll definitely have the discipline to ignore those.
The eight steps above are a sure-fire recipe for habit failure, and I recommend you try all of them if you’re looking to fail. Of course, if you’re looking to succeed, you might want to avoid them and possibly try the opposite.[Ed. Note. Leo Babauta is the owner of ZenHabits.net, a website devoted to providing clear and concise wisdom on how to simplify your life. He’s also the author of, The Power of Less: The Fine Art of Limiting Yourself to the Essential, in Business and in Life.]