I can’t believe it took me this long to realize it. I wish I had known what I know now years ago.
We all wish we had the knowledge and wisdom of a 60-year-old and the body of a 20-something. Hindsight really is 20/20…maybe even better.
I have knowledge today that I didn’t have a few days ago, a year ago or even a decade ago. It’s annoying that none of the many books on productivity, personal development or living a better life didn’t teach me this.
Maybe one of them did, but I simply didn’t listen, however, the way I devour books, I feel as if I would have remembered this little tid bit.
Are self-help books really helping or are they just making you feel inadequate and depressed?
Do the authors actually follow their own advice or are they just trying to get into your wallet and make a buck or two?
When it comes to habits, do you have to be perfect?
I have read so many books about things, such as becoming more productive, creating a morning routine, waking up early, building new habits and so on. Most of the time, the author doesn’t make it a case study, and if they do, it’s only for a short time.
This is actually, exactly how we ended up with this notion that it only takes 21 days to form a habit. In reality, it can take anywhere from 18 to more than 200 days depending on how big of a change it is, your reasons for making the change, the environment you live in and many other factors.
The question I am proposing today is simple: When starting a new habit, do you have to be perfect for it to stick?
It only takes 21 days to form a habit
Sure. Okay. Great tag-line. Change your life in just three measly little weeks. That just 6% of your entire year. No big deal. This should be easy.
Three weeks later, have you really changed? Is your new habit a habit? Did you perform your new habit all 21 days? Did you even make it 21 days or did you fail to do it one day and then another and give up?
Most people take on a new habit, such as waking up earlier, eating a certain diet, starting a morning routine, meditating, etc., and they last about a week. Usually, that first weekend is where it all goes to crap and they don’t get back on the horse come Monday. Instead, they give up because it’s too hard to change.
I believe there are three major reasons people give up so easily and why only a very few make it 21 entire days practicing their new habit.
Reason #1 – People Don’t Really Want to Change
Most humans really don’t want to change. Instead, they want to stay the same in their comfort bubble never stepping outside of it. They want the benefits of change, but actually doing the work to change isn’t something they’re interested in.
Reason #2 – People Don’t have Solid Reasons for Changing
The best example of this is diet. 95% of the United States population will go on a diet to lose weight starting the New Year (not a fact, just a made up stat). Most have one goal and only one goal: lose weight. Before January is over with, 99.9999999% of those people will quit and go back to the way they ate the year before.
Why? Simple. Losing weight is only one reason to diet and it’s not a good enough reason for most people. Plus, dieting is flawed as you really have to change the entire way you eat, but that’s a different blog post.
When we want to change something about ourselves, we need more than one reason or that one reason has to be nearly life or death. Making a change requires driving factors, which are our reasons for the change. If you have at least two real, solid for the changes, it’s more likely to stick.
Reason #3 – People Think they Must be Perfect at the New Habit
If you were to decide you wanted to start a new habit of waking up an hour earlier to work on a project towards your true calling/passion/purpose in life, you’d be forming a new habit. Just do it for 21 days and you’re all set, right?
Wrong! Wrong! Wrong!
This theory is just a simplification and a catchy tag-line to sell books and gain blog visitors. 21 days of perfectly waking up an hour earlier only starts the foundation of a new habit, but the biggest flaw is simply; you don’t have to be perfect.
So many self-help, personal development and other types of books make it seem (probably without intending to) that you must be perfect. You’re not allowed to slip up and the author does whatever they are promoting perfectly.
We are human. We are flawed and we are going to fail.
If you assume you can go 21 straight days waking up an hour earlier and all of the sudden you’ll just pop out of bed an hour earlier for the rest of your life, you’re setting yourself up for massive failure. Heck, you’ll likely not even make it 21 days without failing at least once or twice.
Thinking you must be perfect at that new habit will lead to failure. It will lead you down the path of quitting after you screwed up for a day or two in a row.
A Better Plan for Building Habits
Instead of trying to be perfect for 21 days and hoping some type of magical change will happen, how about we tap into what makes us human: our flaws.
Instead of saying “If I could just make it through three weeks, I will be able to change and I will be completely different,” why not say, “If I can do my new habit more often than I don’t, over time, it will just become natural and a part of my life.”
Habit forming doesn’t have to be so difficult and it doesn’t have to be about perfection for three weeks or whatever amount of time you’ve bought into. It can be approached differently.
Look at your new habit as a lifestyle and a long-term thing. Look at it as something you’re going to do for the rest of your life, even if you fail here and there along the way.
Remember back when you were younger and you wanted to learn a new skill. Maybe you wanted to learn how to ride a bike or you wanted to learn a sport. Did you just hop on your bike and start riding like a pro? Did you pick up a basketball and start dribbling and shooting like Michael Jordan?
Of course not!
You had to practice and work at the new skill. You had to fail, fall down, lose the ball, miss the shot and pick yourself back up in order to try again. You had to get thrown off the horse and you had to get back on.
This is the mentality every new habit requires. Perfection isn’t the goal, habit forming is.
Instead of thinking you have to be perfect and that the authors of the many books out there on habits, personal development and self-help are perfect at what they teach, embrace the journey. Embrace the successes and the failures.
Look at the new habit in longer terms than just 21 days or a month or even one year. Track your progress and see how good you’re doing.
Maybe the first month, you perform your new habit 15 times out of 30 changes. Great! That’s progress and you’re getting somewhere.
Month two, maybe you perform it 20 out of 30 times. Even better, you’re getting closer to forming a habit.
Month three, maybe you perform it 25 out of 30 times. You’re doing great and you’re right where you should be. You’ve failed a few times, but you have far more successes than failures.
At this point, maybe you do have a perfect month or maybe you slip a bit. Even if you slip a little and perform your new habit 22 out of 30 times, you’re still successful at it more often than you’re not.
The goal with habit forming shouldn’t be to create a new rule on your life or new restriction. It should be to free you from something you didn’t want to be a part of your life anymore.
If you perpetually wake up at noon and you want to become a morning person, you might want to make a habit of waking up at 6am. This is a massive change, but certainly a possible change.
Chances are, if you spend a few months working on this habit, failing, trying again and succeeding, then failing again and repeating it over and over again, your failures will become closer to your successes.
Habit forming is a bit like golf, in a way. In golf, the winner of the tournament is the guy that had the best missed shots. Most professional golfers only hit a perfect shot, just as they planned it a handful of times per round. However, their failed shots are minor failures, which still turn out to look great and play great on the course.
Going back to the waking up earlier example. You set the goal of 6am and, at first, a failed day was waking up somewhere between 10am and noon. It seemed like you either woke up at 6am or it was many hours later.
However, after 3 months of working at it, maybe the days you don’t wake up at 6am are now more like waking up at 8am. That’s much closer to 6am than 10am or noon.
This goes with just about any habit. Maybe you’re starting a new diet and a failure in the first month or two means a trip to some horrible fast food joint or an entire day of eating horrible foods not on your diet. However, after a few months, a failed could simply mean you ate one thing, at one meal not on your diet or you indulged in a small piece of cake at the office.
Making our Failures Smaller
When we look at habit forming as a process of making our failures smaller, it becomes more doable. I feel far more motivated when my failures are getting smaller and I notice it compared to just looking at the goal of perfection compared to failing and giving up.
Change the way you form habits and you might actually be able to change your life. No more 21 days of perfection. No more thinking a failed day means you must give up. No more expecting perfection when you’re a flawed human being.
Embrace your flaws and work on making your failures smaller instead of working on becoming perfect.