Many times when we try to make a good change in our lives, it gets derailed early on by something out of our control.
Let’s say you start a diet, and your daughter makes some great vegan cupcakes and you want to support her efforts, and so you eat some … and this exception causes you to say, "screw it" and you eat some other unhealthy foods later in the day, and then the next day.
Or you’re trying to think positively, and so you go out of your way to be nice to someone with whom you’re not on good terms … and they snub you, causing you to go down a spiral of negative thoughts.
How do you stop the negative spiral? How do you stop the slippery slope?
By having a more flexible idea of what your habit change is.
The problem is that we often have an ideal habit change: we’re going to start this new diet and be perfect at it and all will go well and we’ll be healthy and trim and sexy.
And of course the actual path is much more bumpy than that, and so this ideal expectation is never met. Changes never go the way we think they will. Our fantasies about our new habits don’t come true. And we feel horrible about that, and get derailed.
The problem isn’t the event that derailed us, that caused our perfect habit to go bad … the problem is our ideal about how the change will go. The ideal is just a fantasy, made up in our heads. It’s not real. It’s not realistic.
What’s more realistic? Reality. Instead of holding onto the fantasy you have about the change, let that go and embrace the reality of the change. Be open to whatever happens, be curious what it’s like, and actually be present and observe the change as it happens.
Did someone not respond positively like you’d hoped they would? That’s okay, because while the ideal didn’t happen, you knew that things would turn out differently than the ideal, and so instead of being disappointed you’re curious about what happened, why, how you react, and how you can respond appropriately to this change in plans.
Letting go of the ideal, you smile, observe yourself, and think, "What now? What’s the way to respond appropriately to this new situation?"
You’re flexible. You embrace the reality. You move through the ever changing landscape with a shifting plan, and a smile.
This article originally appeared in Zen Habits and is reprinted with permission.