How Backsliding Might Actually Help You Keep Habit Changes

When your new habit falls by the wayside you can use that pause to reassess what you really want.

How Backsliding Might Actually Help You Keep Habit Changes
[Photo: Iryna Tiumentseva via Shutterstock]

A funny thing happens every year around this time. People who made New Year’s resolutions to exercise–and who did so diligently for a couple of months–encounter some hiccup in the routine. They get injured. They get the flu. Work goes into a crunch time. These are all reasonable excuses, but when the storm passes, the habit is gone.


“In a pattern that surprises many people, starting over is harder than starting,” says Gretchen Rubin, whose recently released book Better Than Before examines how people form and keep habits. “Stopping halts momentum, breeds guilt, makes us feel bad about losing ground, and worst of all, breaks the habit so that the need for decision making returns–which demands energy, and often results in making a bad decision.”

So, given that some breaks in routine are inevitable, what can be done?

One strategy is to use the break to make an honest assessment of what the habit did or didn’t do for you.

Assessing Why We Stop

Ali Davies, a Vancouver-based productivity coach, began a “power hour” morning routine some time ago. When things are going well, “I wake up naturally between 5:00 a.m. and 5.30 a.m.,” she says, which she accomplishes by going to bed by 10 p.m. the night before. Upon waking, she’d enjoy a little quiet time, do some meditation, reading, and yoga or stretching.

She enjoyed the routine, but then, “I stopped quite unintentionally. There were a few weeks when for various reasons I was going to bed later than usual, which meant I was waking later than usual, by which time either the family was already up or I needed to get straight into business commitments,” she says. “So the habit sort of fell by the wayside.”

But then she took stock of how she was feeling and realized that she “really noticed the difference.” Indeed, “I find when I do this habit every day I am more effective, productive, and more anchored as a person, and better able to manage whatever the day throws at me.” So with these feelings in mind, she reinstated a strict bedtime. That meant she could wake up earlier, and when she began reaping the productivity dividend, “it made it easier to keep at it until it was just my usual habit again.”


Another way to restart? To change your reasons for keeping the habit. I wrote in a journal for years, mostly because I love writing. Then, around 2012, I realized I was cranking out so many words for my professional projects that writing in my journal had become a source of stress. I stopped. But then this winter I had a new baby, and I wanted my son to have a record of his babyhood. So I started writing in my journal again. I was willing to write for him, even if I wasn’t willing to write for me.

View Habit Slips Like Weekends

Finally, the best way to restart is to change how you view breaks in the routine. Chances are, you get up and go to work Monday through Friday. Then you don’t go on Saturday and Sunday. You’ve broken the chain! Yet, come Monday, you don’t seriously consider not going to work (most of the time, at least).

Why? The weekend is a pause, not a stop. When you take a break from the workday habit, you have a specific time you plan to start again, and a system of accountability encouraging you to show up.

You can use this same “pause, don’t stop” mindset for other things. Rubin reports that “my yoga instructor doesn’t let people stop. If someone tells him, ‘I’m stopping for the summer,’ he says, ‘No, you’re not stopping. I won’t expect you for those X number of sessions, but I’ll see you in September.’”

The commitment is still there waiting for you, like Monday follows Sunday. And when it’s waiting for you, it’s a lot easier to pick a habit back up.


About the author

Laura Vanderkam is the author of several time management and productivity books, including I Know How She Does It: How Successful Women Make the Most of Their Time (Portfolio, June 9, 2015), What the Most Successful People Do Before Breakfast (Portfolio, 2013), and 168 Hours: You Have More Time Than You Think (Portfolio, 2010). She blogs at