We’ve probably all been there. You start a great new habit of running every day, or meditating regularly, or eating more healthily, and you’re so pleased about the change, but then you start back-sliding. Maybe this sneaky little Troll voice starts to point out that you’ve never kept this up before, and so you probably won’t this time. Or you ‘fall off the wagon’- hate that phrase- and therefore tell yourself that the wagon has gone and you might as well give up now.

In my experience there are three main reasons for backsliding.

The Upper Limit problem

Firstly, our brains naturally resist change (the status quo feels safer). This is what Gay Hendricks refers to as the Upper Limit Problem. He argues that we all subconsciously set ourselves a kind of glass ceiling of how much change or success we allow ourselves. If we go past that, especially if it happens rapidly, we will subconsciously make sure to pull ourselves bacxk down. The classic example is lottery winners, 70% of whom eventually go broke.

However, if you are really aware of this tendency, you can try and catch it in action, and question the thoughts or beliefs. Is it really true that eating that slice of cake means you might as well have a curry tonight as well?

The power of 1%

Secondly, we set ourselves ridiculously high targets, that we kind of know we won’t be able to keep up (which is then a great excuse for stopping). Ask yourself if what you’re planning to do is really realistic. Are you really going to run 5 miles a day, rain or shine?

There’s a really good book I recommend on establishing new habits, Atomic Habits by James Clear. One of his key points is about the power of 1%. If we improve by just 1% a day we might not even notice it, but over a year it leads to a 37% improvement. People tend to feel that there has to be a massive change and when that doesn’t happen, the Troll leaps in and says ‘Told you so!’, and we give up. But, actually, just a small shift in the right direction daily (and even on occasion a few shifts backwards), will still lead to massive change overall. 

Negative bias

The third reason is that we naturally focus on the negative, or on the times when we didn’t act as we wanted, rather than when things went as plannned. So, try and consciously focus on all the times when things went right and you made the right choices, rather than on the occasions when you didn’t. Note the latter, and see if you can learn anything from them- e.g. was there a particular trigger you can avoid or deal with differently?- but always take note of the progress. 

As well as noticing what goes right, you can also consciously try and double down on this. So, if, for example, you notice a time when you remembered to meditate, try and work out why that happened and do more of that. Maybe it was because you woke up 15 minutes earlier and felt less rushed, for example.

The main thing is to be as aware as you can of what is happening. As ever, mindfulness is ultimately the key, because it can help us from being led by our subconscious. The subconscious is usually trying to be helpful, but rarely fully understands what’s happening. Journalling, a regular mindfulness practice, and a willingness to look kindly but objectively at our behaviour are the best tools in our armoury to guard against backsliding after positive change.


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