As imperfect humans constantly trying to stick new habits, we're all familiar with the concept of falling off the rails. It happens to everyone, sometimes as a conscious decision, sometimes through neglect, and sometimes through defeat.
You decide to run every day for a month, nail it for a week straight, and then you just stop. Maybe you give up sugar for a month, but then give in to temptation and eat half an apple pie in one sitting. There's this feeling when you know you're about to go off the rails of: oh well-- if I'm going to go off the rails, I may as well go way off. In fact, when I see people go off the rails, I most often see them go way off. It never seems to be a small violation.
Is this the best we can do?
It's important to understand what is happening when you go off the rails. At your best, you decided to make a change. You made a plan for that change and you actually stuck with it for some amount of time. As you begin to veer off the rails, you're taking your past progress and your unrealized future progress, and putting it at risk. You're pushing a stack of chips from the safety of your bankroll to the middle of the table.
This has to happen sometimes. It doesn't mean that it's a good thing when it happens, but it's a sign that you're actually tackling changes that are big enough to challenge you. That's how personal growth occurs. So no matter how disciplined you are, you're going to find yourself in this situation from time to time.
Sometimes you can rein it in and convince yourself to stick with it, but other times you can't. A few months ago I did a three week train trip through Japan. I knew that I would not stick to my diet during that time. I would be in too many different places for too short of a time, and would be leading a big group of people. Health and diet are high priorities for me, but I knew that I would have bigger priorities pushing those down.
In that moment where you realize you're going off the rails, the first thing you should think about is how you're going to get back on afterwards. This is your first line of defense for not completely breaking the habit. The next thing to realize is that you're temporarily retreating, not surrendering. There's a difference.
With that in mind, understand that the further you deviate, the harder it is going to be to get back on the rails. If you're at the point where you're going off the rails, you know it's a tough habit, so why make it harder than it has to be?
If you know you're not going to run, jog. If you can't handle that, walk. If you can't do that, go outside and sit on your stairs. These are token gestures intended to keep your brain in check. You aren't making progress, but you're taking a stand against total failure. You're reminding your subconscious that a small impulse to quit doesn't relieve the pressure of a new habit, it only pushes it away.
Going only slightly off the rails also makes it easier to get back on. A while back I was learning Kanji. Near the end of my intensive two months, I was spending four hours a day reviewing flash cards and writing tiny characters in graph paper. I completed 2000 Kanji, and then went off the rails next day. I could have limited myself to one hour of Kanji, or done the flash cards in my head instead of writing, but I went way off. I did nothing. Then I did nothing the following day. As a result, I forgot at least 1500 of the Kanji I learned.
What would have happened if I had just gone slightly off the rails? It's tough to say now, but I had the fortitude to do tons of cards every day for two months, so I imagine I could have gotten back on and locked those Kanji into my brain. Besides that, my meta-habits for building habits would have been stronger and my next endeavor would have been just a tiny bit easier.
So when you see yourself going off the rails and you can't resist it, due to circumstances or willpower, limit just how far you fall. A small deviation can be enough to get through bad logistics or to vent a bit, and can be just a minor detour rather than a one way trip to failure.
Photo is the slowest train in Cambodia, which no longer runs.
Well said, Tynan. I had a minor (there is such a thing) heart attack last November. After surgery and during a period of drug-taking recovery, I read a lot about diet and cardiac/respiratory illness. Most everything contradicted every other thing I read, but my cardiologist recommended "Why We Get Fat" by Gary Taubes and that sent me to a long list of clinical trials, valuable diet information, and, eventually, I decided to start reducing my sugar and carbohydrate intake. I was (probably still am) a bread fanatic, I discovered. I can easily mix, knead, bake, and eat a couple of loaves of bread in an evening. Leaving that favorite food was very much like withdrawal.
Eight months later, 37 pounds lighter, I don't have "sugar fits" (what I used to call low blood sugar), my allergies are in the background, my energy level is dramatically higher and more consistent, but I still crave sugar and carbs. Every once in a while, I go off of the rails. So far, I've got back on track after each binge, but it isn't any easier months after going through withdrawal. Your advice about "limiting the fall" is exactly how I've managed to hang on to the weight loss and keep my carb and sugar intake consistently (over a week, if not every day) low.
I have a 'bit' of a drinking problem, and when I go way off the rails, it's very hard to get everything back together. The diet goes, fitness goes, and the whole positive mentality is harder to regain.
Exercise, clean diet and proactive + postive work, helps me get back on.
Thanks, great advice! This happens quite often with my paleo diet. I am sometimes in situations where I can't do a 100% paleo and then end up eating unhealthily for the entire day.
Just found your blog and read this post and your epic post on hard work. Excellent insights. Completely agree. Took my a long time to come to these same revelations, but working hard and only flying of the rail a little have been two things that have given me more success than anything else.
Also really interested in this SETT platform. Looks really good so far.
Thanks for the inspiration, Tynan! This evening, I was tempted to blow off the gym. Wanted to do a full workout, but decided I didn't have time. After I read this post, I decided to go anyway and just run. It's not optimal, but it beats sitting at home with my thumb up my butt not getting any exercise.
Yesterday was Christmas. I spent it in New Jersey with my parents, sister, aunt, uncle, and three of my cousins. We played board games (Scattergories!), ate Christmas dinner together, and I "helped" my cousins play with their new toys they got for Christmas.
And then, in between those events, I did two hours of Japanese practice and also spent time writing content for Life Nomadic.
I have a lot of good habits as well as a lot of bad habits, but one of my best is that I treat every day equally.
Question from a reader -
I discovered your blog recently and have been enjoying reading your posts, including the older ones. I was wondering if you had come across this problem before:
I feel I know intellectually what I need to do to be more productive and effective. I am a fan of getting things done (GTG) and have a written a good set of goals at 50k and 40k foot levels down to smaller projects and next tasks. For the past 3 months or so though I have not even wanted to look at these goals or my projects and next tasks. My mind knows what it needs to do but getting my body to do it has been next to impossible. At the point of critical decision like get up and go to the gym in the morning I give into the easier option of staying in bed.
I feel like I need a better strategy for execution. Any thoughts?