Some time ago partying and eating constantly cafeteria food had caught up with me. I was chubby. So I set a goal of going to the gym every single day of the second semester. I did chest, shoulders, and triceps on Monday, then back and biceps on Tuesday.
I went back to the first part of the split on Wednesday and kept repeating the cycle.
I was proud of myself for starting my exercise habit, but after a few days, my entire body was brutally sore. After a week, I could barely raise my arms more than five degrees from my sides. I was constantly tired. I needed ten hours of sleep some nights, just to be able to get out of bed in the morning. I was always hungry. I ate grosser cafeteria food. I became irritable and had trouble focusing in class.
I started having gutted wrenching reactions to going to the gym. I wanted to vomit just thinking about it. It was my body telling me I couldn’t handle it.
I had to stop.
My exercise habit was broken before it ever really started. But I used this failure as an opportunity to learn where I had gone wrong… This is how I came up with these 4 ways to build great habits while planning for failure.
Why Planning for Failure is Essential to Building Great Habits
1. Think Long-Term
Setting the ambitious goal of exercising every day felt validating. The simple act of setting my goal made it feel like I was halfway to achieving it. It boosted my ego. Setting a less ambitious goal would have required me to think less of what I was capable of, which would have been demeaning. But it turned out that in practice, the more ambitious goal was not sustainable.
Exercising every day worked great…for 7 days. For the other 23 days in that month, it did not work at all. I had to remind myself that I didn’t want to go to the gym simply for the purpose of going to the gym. Going to the gym wasn’t the ends goal, it was the means goal. I wanted to go to the gym so that I could become healthier and stay that way. But after the first month, the rigorous process I had set for myself proved to be more of a hindrance than a help.
2. Start Small
My colossal failure at starting an exercise regimen inspired me to take a different tact to forming habits. Because I care more about results than my ego, I decided to start small.
At the end of last year, I wanted to quit drinking coffee. However, I didn’t try to stop cold turkey. If I had tried to stop cold turkey, it’s very likely that a couple days into it, I would have had strong cravings for coffee that my willpower couldn’t have handled. Even though going cold turkey may have worked for the first couple days, I would have been off (on?) the coffee wagon once again shortly thereafter.
Instead, I slowly weaned off coffee. I started replacing some of my coffee with tea. Eventually, I was drinking about five cups of tea per day, but zero coffee. Then, I started weaning off tea. I went from five cups of tea per day to three to one over the course of five days. I achieved a small success each day, and that inspired me to keep improving.
Since then, I’ve been drinking just one cup of green tea per day. On the weekends, I don’t have any tea at all. It was hardly painful to quit coffee and I haven’t had any significant cravings. I’m confident in my ability to maintain this regimen over the long-term.
3. Sustainability is Key
One of my current habits is writing. I write every morning. It’s a system I’ve instilled because of the many benefits that can come from it — building my brand, building my following, improving a valuable skill, etc. I’ve been writing consistently for about four years now. However, even to this day, I break the habit. I quit. Some mornings I wake up and decide I’m not going to write.
If I need more sleep or simply want or need to do something else, I do it. This is a big part of the reason why I’ve been able to consistently write for the past four years. I sacrifice one day of productivity for years of sustainability.
Habits are for the purpose of helping us achieve our goals, not hindering them. When a process, or goal becomes more of a hindrance than a benefit, it’s a sign that something is broken.
The approach I’ve described in this article is contrary to other popular approaches to building habits described by others, many of whom have more money than I do. As with everything I write about, I encourage you to do what actually works for you, not just what sounds good in theory or works for other people? Plan for failure by starting small and optimizing for long-term success is what worked for me.