Wellness Wednesday: Why Habits Fail

If you're one of the majority of Americans who has given up on your resolution, you might be feeling like a failure. While you have not failed, your habit has. Read on to learn why habits fail and what you can do about it. 

Why Habits Fail

It's that time of year. If you made a New Years Resolution, then you probably know what I'm talking about. The wave of motivation you rode through January has since crashed and the blizzards and sales on Valentine's Day chocolates and the fact that you can't find your favorite leggings all seem like valid excuses to give up on your resolution. I actually saw an article published last week called "The Week Your New Years Resolution Dies." Harsh, yes, but appropriate - studies show four out of five resolutions are given up by the first week of February.

If you've been reading this blog for any length of time, you've probably guessed I'm not a fan of resolutions. Most are destined for failure. But I promise, I won't say I told you so, even if there's a teeeennny little bit of me that wants to. If you're in that 80% of failed resolutioners (is that a word?), you likely feel bad enough already.

Notice I named this article "Why Habits Fail." It's not, "Why You Failed" or "Why You're A Lazy, Horrible, Worthless Human Being." I truly believe it's impossible to be a failure. If you have the ability to wake up and try again, then there's another opportunity for success.

Habits, on the other hand, can fail. And I would venture to say nine times out of ten, it's due to a failure to plan or a poor plan. Most often, I see the same five mistakes in planning repeating themselves. Do any of these sound familiar?

1. FOCUSING ON THE RESULT.

Was your New Years Resolution to lose 20 lbs? Or maybe to run a half marathon. That's fantastic, but you can't wish and hope and pray for it to happen, you have to make it happen by building a lifestyle that makes it difficult to fail.

Plus, what happens if you get this close to the result you wanted, but not quite there? Do you pack it in and call it a day?

I once worked with a man who had previously set a goal to lose 50 pounds. He had lost 43 pounds before hitting a plateau. After killing himself at the gym and basically starving himself to no avail, he gave up and regained most of the weight. When I asked him about how he felt 43 lbs lighter, it was clear he had actually reached this goals -  he was happier, his knee pain was gone and he fit into his old clothes. Despite that, his focus on the result told him he was a failure.

2. TAKING STEPS THAT ARE TOO BIG.

Habits change bodies and lives, not goals. To create a habit, you must regularly repeat the same action day after day. The bigger the action, the more motivation it takes to get started. Motivation is like a muscle and wears down with time, so you can go ahead and presume you'll have none of it at some point.

Eating a serving of vegetables at dinner, meditating for two minutes or jogging around the block may not get you the result you desire on it's own, but these steps are the foundation for building habits. The hardest part of each action is getting started. Once you start these actions, you may find yourself filling your plate with vegetables, meditating longer and jogging harder. If not, that's okay. These two minute actions are certainly better than skipping entirely and you won't feel guilty afterwards because you hit your goal.

3. SETTING TOO MANY GOALS.

Starting a new habit takes an incredible amount of mental strength and attention. If your mind is spread between too many new habits, you won't have enough to complete one.

Studies show the more habits and goals you work on at once, the less likely you are to succeed. I set three as an absolute max when I goal set with clients, and for myself. Note, we're talking about really small goals here. Working on two big habits at once is about as difficult as working on 20 mini-habits.

4. NOT ANTICIPATING BARRIERS.

When you're excited about making a change, it's kind of a downer to think about what could possibly get in your way. But, if life has taught me anything, it's to expect the unexpected. Rarely do things workout according to plan.

It's easy to maintain a habit when you have all the tools you need at your disposal. But some days, you'll be missing a hammer or a wrench or maybe your entire toolbelt. What will you do?

In motivational interviewing, a coaching technique commonly used in healthcare, there's a tool called the confidence in change scale. It involves asking someone to rank the confidence in their ability to change on a scale of 1-10, ten being 110% percent confidence and one being not at all confident. In one class I took on motivational interviewing, the instructor told us someone who says ten is just as likely to fail as someone who says one because overconfidence is just as dangerous as lacking confidence. If you're overconfident, you won't anticipate the barriers that will almost certainly arise. Without a plan to deal with the barrier, your goals are easily derailed.

5. BEING A NEGATIVE NANCY.

Let's say you want to lose weight. Losing weight generally requires eating copious amounts of vegetables. You hate vegetables. So, you silently whine about all the lettuce and zucchini and carrots and curse each bite of Brussels sprouts.

With that type of outlook, do you think eating more vegetables is a change you'll be able to maintain? Probably not.

Instead, what if you acknowledged the challenge, but viewed it as a way to find new foods you love and expand your taste buds? Approaching the new habit with a positive attitude makes success much more likely.

Forming new habits forces you outside your comfort zone and that's usually not a pleasant thing. Focusing on that negativity guarantees your habit will fail, while focusing on the positive almost guarantees success.

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So, which one of these killed your resolution?

There's no rule that says a goal has to start on New Years. If your goal is still important to you, take a step back, evaluate your plan and take another stab at it. View your earlier struggles as a learning opportunity, regroup and develop a new plan. And remember, you are not a failure, just your habit.

Need help in reaching your goals? It's hard to do on your own! I'm here to help.

Did you make a New Years Resolution? If so, how is it going? Has a goal or yours ever failed due to one of these five mistakes? 

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