7 Strategies for Resuming a Good Habit After a Slip

How to get back on track after you've broken a habit streak.

Posted Jun 22, 2020

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Since December, I've been working very consistently on writing my next book. I've been doing two deep work sessions per workday, with few gaps. Last week, too many other tasks had piled up. I needed to attend to them. So, I took 3 days off from book writing. I broke my streak. 

Whenever you break a streak, there's a risk you will "fall off the wagon" permanently and not resume it. Here are some highly practical tips for getting back on track.

1. Resume the routine that was helping you create the habit.

In large part, what helps us maintain habits is our routines. For example, when I do my deep work sessions I set three timers on my Google Home. One for an hour, one for 90 mins, and one for two hours. The timers are reinforcing. I feel satisfied when they go off and they help me pace myself. Perhaps more importantly, the process of setting the timers is part of my routine for settling down to work. My broader routine for starting deep work involves having a chat with my four-year-old before getting a drink, heading to my room, and opening my window.

When people are focused on maintaining a habit streak, they sometimes overfocus on how important the streak aspect is to keeping up their habit. You might think the main thing helping you keep up your good behaviors is wanting to close your rings on your Apple watch. Or, you want to score in the top 10 percent of students on your language learning app to get a badge.

Think beyond the streak or gamified aspects. Think about your routines for cueing your habit. This can help give you confidence that if you perform your usual routine to cue your habit, you'll get back on track.

2. Solve obstacles to getting back into the routine that cues your habit.

I mentioned that my routine for cueing my deep work habit involves setting timers on my Google Home. Well, now that it's baking hot where I live, I unplugged it to plug in a fan. It's an important part of my routine for cueing my habit. So, I found somewhere else to plug in the fan and put it back in its usual spot.

Solve obstacles that have disrupted the routine you use to cue your habit.  

3. Solve new obstacles.

Sometimes new obstacles emerge that threaten a habit. These are often seasonal. For example, you had a habit of running at a certain time of day and now it's too hot. You need to switch your running time until much later or earlier when it's cooler. 

This will require developing a new routine to cue your running habit at a different time. Running at a different time is almost like forming an entirely new habit. Make it easier by including elements from your old routine.

4. Resist the urge to try to make up for what you missed.

Let's say you have a habit of doing one language learning lesson per day. You've missed three days. You think you will do two lessons per day for three days to make those up.

This will make getting back into your habit unnecessarily daunting. You'll be more likely to procrastinate.

It's also not getting back into your habit. Your habit is one lesson per day. All the routines you have to cue yourself are related to doing one lesson. It's one lesson that you have habitually fitted into your day. Stick to that. If you try to do two, you risk everything ending up off-kilter, like being late making dinner, then staying up late, then being tired the next day. All of this will make it harder to resume your habit.

5. Recognize the value of breaking a streak.

It can be demoralizing if you've been cultivating a streak and find yourself back at zero. It can be easy to think that an ideal scenario would be to keep up your streak 100 percent of the time. That is highly unlikely to be the case. Extreme rigidity is a sign of psychological disorder, not of psychological health or good self-control.

It would not be ideal for you to feel compelled to maintain your streak when objectively something else was a high priority. For example, if you arrive late at a hotel before a conference presentation, the better choice is probably to get more sleep than cram in a workout.

Whether you broke your streak for a good reason or a not so good one, this perspective can help you feel less disappointed about having a streak with some gaps in it.

6. Manage anxiety.

It's easy to feel anxious if you've broken a habit streak. You might be anxious that you've lost a hard-won habit. Use whatever strategies usually work for you for managing anxiety. These could include basic self-care or managing self-critical thoughts.

7. Troubleshoot what led to you breaking your habit.

The reasons people break habit streaks vary. They can include disorganization, lack of foresight, or emotion regulation issues. 

For example:

  • You avoided dealing with something until it became an urgent problem. Dealing with the urgent problem disrupted your habit.
  • You booked a late flight without thinking about how you'd get your exercise in that day.
  • You have an argument with your partner and were feeling too salty or too wounded to get your habit done.  
  • You didn't prepare for a new obstacle you could anticipate, like changing weather that made it too hot to run.

Whatever triggered you breaking your habit, ask yourself if it will be a recurring problem. What can you do to prevent that happening or manage it differently?

Wrapping Up

Sometimes the value of a habit changes. A habit that was once very important might become no longer worth your time. This can happen when you grow or your priorities change. Therefore keeping up a habit indefinitely isn't always the best idea. However, if you do want to resume your habit then the tips from this article will help you do that successfully.

Facebook/LinkedIn image: Lyubov Levitskaya/Shutterstock