To build better habits, we need to learn to get comfortable failing. We can think about the way change happens as a range of percentages. At 0% we’re only doing the old behavior and never doing the new behavior. This means I’m still scrolling on my phone in bed instead of getting some sunlight before phone light in the morning. At 100%, we’re almost always doing the new behavior and we’re rarely doing the old behavior anymore. This means before I look at a screen, I’m out for a morning walk and have left my phone at home.
As we practice a new skill, we start doing the new behavior 10%, 20%, 30% of the time—and we’re pumped. We’re trying something new and we feel hopeful and excited and proud.
But then something happens at around 50%. Half the time we’re doing the old behavior and half the time we’re doing the new, and we start to get down on ourselves.
The new behavior feels so good, we give ourselves a hard time for still doing the old one. We lose motivation and before we know it we’re slipping back into the old habit. We decide there’s something wrong with us, like we’re too lazy or don’t really want the change. Or we decide there’s something wrong with our practice, like we haven’t found “the thing” yet.
Nancy Shanteau, in the book “Access to Power,” describes this process as “dropping out of change,” and says, “many smart, capable people seem heartbroken around the change process.”
Change is hard. It’s stressful and makes us feel anxious and disrupted. It takes energy and tires us out. Sometimes giving up is a relief because it means we have a chance to recover from all the effort.
So we drop the habit we’ve been practicing, then pick up another, then drop it, then pick up another—ad infinitum.
But it’s important to keep practicing until we get to that 100% mark and have fully embodied the new habit.
Here are tips to keep you motivated, adapted from a chapter by Julia Kelliher’s in “Access to Power,” called Theory of Change:
Allow yourself to make mistakes. Did you catch yourself making a mistake? Congratulations on building your awareness. That’s a great step in making progress on your goals.
Ask people for support. It’s ok to need feedback and encouragement. Change is hard, and we don't have to do it alone.
Fight your inner critic. That voice that shames you for not being good enough? It’s not doing you any favors and is in fact draining you of the energy you need to make a change.
Take a break. If you’re worn out, it’s easy to sink into hopelessness that things won’t ever be different. Rest and recover your energy before trying again.
Track of your progress. Remember in math when they would make you show your work, so they could see how you got your answer? Do the same when you’re upgrading your habits. Small changes over time can sometimes be hard to see, but if you keep adding it all up, you’ll be surprised with how much you’ve accomplished.
Accept and appreciate yourself. Where you are, as you are. Accept that change is hard, and we all struggle with it. Appreciate the effort you are putting into changing. Hold yourself with so much compassion at how messy and complicated it is to human.
It takes work to recognize we want to make a change, decide how to go about that change, then practice the new habit enough to embody it. Go easy on yourself, but keep going. The new you is waiting.