At the end of 2016, I had 75-day yoga streak, and it felt amazing. I planned to continue it for the entire year ahead, doing yoga every single day. Then I fell while traveling. My knee was so swollen I had to take a break for a few days. But even after it healed, I found myself struggling to get back into my practice. Lingering physical discomfort wasn’t the only obstacle, though: The injury had broken my momentum.
Habit streaks appeal to anyone who gets a rush from crossing something off a list or adding consecutive checkmarks to a calendar–perfectionists, in other words. If you’re your own biggest competition, you likely know that feeling, too. The do-it-every-single-day productivity method is well-established; Jerry Seinfeld, for one, committed to writing a joke every day no matter what–the key to sticking with the habit being simply not to break the daily streak.
The only trouble, of course, is when life intervenes. You may think you’re setting a helpfully low bar by adding a relatively a small activity into your daily routine, rather than aiming for a big, dramatic shift at some point down the road. But “every single day” can prove pretty inflexible, and at some point your streak probably will founder, even if just for a day, raising the chances you’ll abandon your habit altogether.
This is exactly where I found myself after my injury, but my experience of getting back into the saddle transformed the way I approach habit changes overall. Here’s what I’ve learned.
Turning Perfectionism Into An Advantage
I longed for the calm, strong feeling my daily yoga practice had given me, but six months after my injury I was still struggling to stay consistent, sometimes hitting the mat only twice a month. I knew my perfectionism was getting the better of me, but I felt like I’d failed.
After an especially difficult a work crunch and persistent insomnia, I knew I had to get back into the swing of things, trading in my potato chips and Netflix for more yoga. While committing to an indefinite habit streak was daunting, I knew I needed some structure: I tried laying out my brightest, happiest yoga clothes the night before. The first day, I glanced at them as I raced by, thinking about a client email. By the end of the week they blended into the dresser, and I still hadn’t gotten back to the mat. I got more aggressive, unrolling my mat in the middle of the floor. I tripped over it twice on my way to my desk before shoving it back in the closet.
Frustrated but unwilling to give up, I devised a new approach I called “micro yoga,” which was limited by design. First, I broke my habit into the smallest unit possible; I decided to start using a yoga app at home rather than slogging my mat on the crowded subway. The shortest class on the app is just four minutes, so I picked that as my time goal. Second, knowing that those calendar checkmarks motivate me (this was the perfectionist in me), but fearful of committing to an indefinite habit change right away, I set my goal for the smallest streak that would give me a satisfying string of days: one week.
Four minutes a day for seven days in a row seemed achievable. It was the smallest goal I’d ever set, but it felt like something I could actually do. Surely I could find four minutes in even the busiest workday, even if it meant wedging it in between client meetings, right?
To succeed, I reduced obstacles by letting go of perfection. Nothing mattered other than being on that mat for four minutes every day. One day I did my four minutes of yoga in sweatpants rather than changing into the expensive yoga clothes I’d purchased to lure myself to the mat. Another day, I did it at 11 p.m. right before I slipped into bed. One day I even did yoga while watching TV. Oddly enough, I’d used one manifestation of my perfectionist impulse (“Gotta string together seven unbroken days!”) to eliminate others (“A full hour at the same time in the same gear, or it doesn’t count!” “Hey, no–it actually does.”).
Perfection was definitely out the window, but I didn’t care–it worked. I was back to doing yoga daily. My stress was lower and my insomnia was gone. My yoga practice didn’t look Instagram perfect, but it worked.
My New Approach To “Habit Streaks”
It turns out that by breaking my habit streak, I found a powerful way to renew it: by setting shrunken goals.
Committing to just four minutes a day helped me tap into the power of tiny habits without trying to overcome my perfectionism, the part of me that just needs to stick with something on a regular (okay, fine–daily) basis. Taking minuscule actions can help train your brain to focus on smaller adjustments, and when you succeed at those, you build up more confidence to keep moving ahead. I knew that just four minutes of yoga wouldn’t transform my body, but it did make me feel better about myself–and that’s enough.
In addition, by shortening the length of time for my habit experiment, I discovered that sometimes it’s more effective to start with a sprint, rather than going directly to a marathon. Sprinting meant that I wouldn’t have to rely on indefinite willpower, and it helped me avoid buying more pricey clothes as an enticement.
But best of all, I no longer dread the day I’ll eventually fall off the wagon again, because now I know how to get back on–even if it’s just for four minutes.