02/06/2015 04:38 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Forget Perfection, Just Don't Fail Twice in a Row

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Building a new habit is incredibly hard work. You set out with the best of intentions, you make a plan, and you try to set yourself up for success.

At first, everything goes great and you feel on top of the world. You're motivated, you're succeeding, and you can see how it's going to change the way you live.

Then, without fail, something gets in the way. Work gets busy. You have a family emergency. You have to take your dog to the vet. And you slip.

The fact that you slipped, I believe, is not important. But what happens next is.

After looking at dozens of cases of my own and those close to me, I've learned that those who succeed and those who don't at building a new habit often experience the same number of failures and disappointments along the way. The only difference is where those failures occur.

Image courtesy of Michael Himbeault

Inconsistent Consistency: How I Built The Habit Of Running

I'm always on the hunt for small changes I can make to my routine to get better at sticking to the things I say are important to me. Over the years, I've failed at many new things but, somehow, the habit of running has stuck.

After six years and seven marathons on every continent, it's easier for me to get up in the morning and go for a run than it is to plop down on the couch. This habit is deeply ingrained.

When I try to start a new habit--building more connections was a recent one--I always look at my running habit and ask, "How can I copy that for this new goal?" And, of course, the answer is always, "Do it for six years and it'll be easy."

I thought about my last six years of running and had to wonder if it's really been that perfect.

Since 2008, I've made it my goal to run five miles each day for three days each week. When I look at my running logs and add up all the mileage, I'm right on track: almost 4,700 miles. But if I'm honest, I've missed plenty of days.

When I factor out planned downtime, though, I've almost never missed more than one in a row. And today, when I miss a run, I try to make up for it the next day.

Habits are a complex thing, and I don't claim to have all the answers, but I think this is a big part of what accounts for success: never failing twice in a row.

Forget Perfection, Just Don't Fail Twice In A Row

If you compare your successful habits to the ones you've struggled with, you'll likely find the times you've stumbled and veered off track are about the same. The big difference will be in how those stumbles line up over time.

If you commit to trying something new and forgiving yourself when you make a mistake, you'll see that when you mess up, you get right back to work. When it happens again, you do the same. Over time, you're failures become fewer and further between.

But when you force yourself to be perfect from the outset, it's easy to lose motivation after just one stumble. One leads to two. Two leads to three. Pretty soon, you've given up entirely. The longer you veer off track, the easier it becomes to stay there.

So, when it comes to building a new habit--one you really want to stick to--you should concern yourself less with screwing up a lot. You're allowed to screw up, and it's bound to happen. What you should really worry about is never screwing up twice in a row.

  • Want to learn a new instrument? Commit to practicing three times each week, and never miss two sessions in a row.
  • Want to actually go to the gym? Set a schedule, and actually go. Don't beat yourself up when you miss a day. Just get up and go again.
  • Want to eat healthy? Create a new meal plan for yourself. Enjoy the nachos and beer when you slip, just never have them for lunch and dinner.

The path to failure is littered with small stumbles. But so is the path to success. The difference is how many you allow to stack up in the same place.

Further reading:

  1. Sample Rate: How The Fast Food Industry Hooks You (And How To Reclaim Your Diet)
  2. Want Better Habits? Stop Making This Very Common Mistake
  3. Stick To It: A Different Way To Think About New Year's Resolutions
  4. This Coach Spent Practice Time Teaching Players To Tie Their Shoes Right. Guess What Happened Next
  5. Habit Interruption: How I Taught Myself To Stop Peeing In A Broken Toilet
  6. How To Run 26 Miles

Tyler Tervooren founded, where he shares research and insights about mastering your psychology by taking smarter risks. For more, join his Smart Riskologist Newsletter.

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