When You Go Off the Rails, Only Go a Little

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.

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Photo is the slowest train in Cambodia, which no longer runs.

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