Make a promise to yourself that even though you may occasionally have setbacks, you will never skip your task for two days in a row. One day is understandable, but two days makes a habit. If you slip up, go into learning mode and ask why so you can ensure you don’t do the same the following day.
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Peter Hollins is a bestselling author, human psychology researcher, and a dedicated student of the human condition.
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When you’re starting out, the first day matters. Baby steps matters. But once you’ve started, it’s all about preserving your momentum. Momentum is nothing mysterious, though—it’s simply our ability to keep moving once we’ve started moving. We don’t need to continually maintain the same degree of intensity, though. You can slow down, only don’t completely stop!
In the beginning, there may be a strong and perfectly natural desire to miss a day here and there. Nobody’s perfect and remember, your brain is working hard to bring you back to its old equilibrium, so you may be pushing hard against the tendency to run back to your comfort zone. But once you’ve begun, make a promise to yourself that although you can skip a day here or there, you will never skip two days in a row.
This is a great rule to have for yourself, because it’s flexible. We all mess up from time to time. Maybe you’re ill. Maybe some truly unexpected emergency crops up. That’s fine. If you skip a day, forgive yourself and move on—but don’t allow yourself to do it again. Otherwise, you are on the path to making it a habit. One day is a normal setback. Two days starts to seriously undo your momentum.
All or nothing thinking can be deadly when we’re trying to learn new habits and genuinely improve our lives. If you are ultra-strict with yourself and freak out when you’re not perfect, you may actually send yourself into a downward spiral and think, “Well, I’m so far gone now I might as well give up.” But you don’t have to aim for perfection. You just need to be consistent—and giving up is the one thing that will destroy that consistency!
How to Use This in Your Life Immediately
Your attitude is what will make the difference.
This two-day rule is really a psychological trick. We are in essence immunizing ourselves against small setbacks and simply refusing to let them turn into big setbacks.
Step 1: When you mess up, deliberately move away from bad feelings about yourself. You haven’t failed; it’s not a catastrophe. In fact, it’s pretty normal and one hundred percent predictable. Whatever you do, don’t allow bad feelings to get in the way of you continuing your mission. Remind yourself that messing up one day is not a sign that you’re a hopeless case, but simply that your approach needs adjusting. That’s it. It’s just data.
Step 2: Take that data and see what you can learn. What needs to change to make sure this doesn’t happen again? Take the slip-up as valuable, welcome feedback. You didn’t think the process of change would be perfectly smooth sailing, right?
Step 3: Set up consequences for not following through on two days. You need to really, really feel that it’s impossible for you to miss two days in a row. Encourage this belief by having someone else hold you accountable, or find a way to make the consequences so real and uncomfortable that it’s actually preferable just to get back onto your winning streak again.
As an example, let’s say you fail to go to gym one day even though you’ve been the last two weeks straight. You pause and look at why. You don’t wallow in self-pity or beat yourself up. You just say, “Hm, what happened there?” Maybe you notice that you missed your morning workout because you stayed up all night and were too exhausted. The actionable next step is clear: go to bed on time tonight and don’t miss your workout tomorrow.
Monitor Your Progress
So you’ve broken things into baby steps, you’ve taken the first and most important baby step, and piece by piece, day by day, you are building your goal. Well done! Now you’re well and truly on the path, you’ll need to keep track of how you’re going. Knowledge is power.
Tracking helps you stay focused on what's important to reaching your goal. It also helps you identify potential obstacles and strategies for how to overcome them—before they derail you. Consciously tracking your development can help you set more realistic goals and stay positive along the way, because you are seeing concrete evidence of your incremental improvement.
Think about keeping a journal to write down your self-discipline goals and to track your progress. Alternatively, you could have a highly visible chart somewhere to remind you of the journey you’re on. This reinforces the positive changes that you're implementing in your life and gives you a record that you can look back on with pride—especially on those days you feel like giving up. It might be tempting to miss a day, but then when you look at your unbroken streak of twenty days, you might decide to push on instead of interrupting that momentum.
This is the power of tracking—if you know what your baseline is, you know, without doubt, whether your interventions are actually working and how much they’re working. The simple act of measuring yourself alone is a boost of motivation. Think of it as having yourself as an accountability buddy. On the other hand, if something isn’t working, tracking yourself will show you this clearly and immediately and give you a chance to identify what is actually the source and magnitude of the problem.
That takes us to the obvious question—how do you track?
How to Use This in Your Life Immediately
If you’re thinking you need some kind of complex app or tool to get you started, hold on—the first step is actually to determine what metrics you can use to measure your progress. Your progress may naturally lend itself to being quantified and measured, but it may not. For example, you may be trying to lose weight, and so you could settle on measuring pounds of weight lost. However, take a moment to think about this carefully. If you only have five pounds to lose, you might choose smaller increments than one pound, or you may choose other metrics entirely, such as waist measurements or how close you are to wearing a too-tight pair of trousers!
Don’t rush this step. First, zoom out and look at the bigger picture, i.e., your larger goal. Then think about realistic, appropriate time scales (again, baby steps will help here!). Reflect on why you’re doing what you’re doing, and then choose a frequency at which you’ll check in on your progress to completing these mini-goals or baby steps. With our example, you might want to lose weight primarily for health reasons and decide that indefinitely checking in weekly makes sense since you are looking to make gradual changes that will last for the long term (i.e., you’re not just crash dieting to lose weight by next Wednesday).
Once you’ve decided on how often you’re checking in, decide on how you’ll track your progress. Again, choose what is appropriate. Keep it simple. You might keep a chart on the bathroom wall where you record your weekly weigh in, joining up the dots to form a graph that shows you your progress over time. Progress tracking works best when you build in a little ritual and reward with each step. Take a moment at every interval to look at how far you’ve come, remind yourself where you’re going, and celebrate the steps you’re taking to get there.