I have a problem with habit-change books.
I can see they are well-intentioned, and it’s a compelling idea that you can make something like working out so easy and consistent that you do it just as easily as you brush your teeth every day.
When I first read habit books like Gretchen Rubin’s Better Than Before and James Clears’ Atomic Habits, I jumped right on the bandwagon. I was sold on the power of regular habits to transform your life. (And to be clear, I still love those books, they are packed full of fantastic tips and advice.)
But the reality is, just as sticking to habits consistently can help move the needle on your well-being, sticking too rigidly to habits can burn you out too.
Habits can discriminate
Doing the same thing each day works well for anyone who has a 24-hour hormonal cycle. If your hormones are generally the same each day, it is easier to feel motivated each day to stick with a habit.
And guess who that benefits? It certainly isn’t anyone with a 28-day menstrual cycle…. It certainly isn’t anyone taking medication to adjust hormones… It certainly isn’t anyone going through menopause….
Do you see where I’m going with this?
And the frustrating part is when people feel like a failure for not sticking with a strict routine, when in fact they simply haven’t considered that it’s not a set-up designed for them.
Habits can disconnect you from your body
As a yoga instructor, I teach my students to tune in to the signals from their bodies. I want my students to recognise when they feel pain, discomfort. I want my students to recognise emotional changes too, such as tiredness or even suppressed signals that are upsetting them.
If you ignore the signals your body sends you for too long, you risk injury or burnout.
Sticking rigidly to a routine that is designed to turn exercise into a habit can override a lot of those signals.
Equally, it’s important to recognise when to push forward, when to tell yourself you can do it, and when to put mind over matter.
If we listen only to the signal to sit in our favourite chair with a bag of chips in front of the tv, we would never be motivated to do anything!
But it’s a balance and a skill to be able to recognise those signals and make the right choice for you each day.
Habits don’t account for seasonal changes in your life
As time goes by your priorities change and trying to stick rigidly to habits when your priorities have changed can feel like putting a square peg into a round hole.
There are some seasonal changes that you know will require a rethink of your routines and how you structure your day – having a baby, for instance. You know if you have a newborn baby, your tried-and-tested morning routines are going to go out the window for a while until you can work out a new routine that works for you, and your new family.
But there are other seasonal changes where we don’t have an obvious trigger that makes us re-think our routines. Moving house, your kids going to a new school, starting a new job or even just getting a promotion at work can change your priorities and routines in subtle ways. Trying to stick rigidly to those habits may not work under the circumstance, or they may work but not right now.
It is important recognise that sometimes you need to take a break from your habits and morning routines to give yourself the time and space to adapt to a major life change.
Equally, your habits and routines can give you consistency during a period of turbulent transition. So again, it comes back to awareness.
When you actively cultivate self-awareness through activities like yoga and meditation, you can recognise what you need during times of transition and adjust accordingly.
Habits can make you crash and burn
One of the more powerful motivators for habit change is keeping your winning streak. Many gaming apps build in streaks to keep you hooked. Even Wordle now has a ‘streak’ so you can keep your streak going each day!
The idea of not breaking the chain is a powerful motivator, so even having a tick chart on your wall can make a difference. But what happens when you break the chain one day for circumstances outside of your control?
It’s tempting to throw the towel in. You lose one day, so you stop altogether. All the excuses you have suppressed rise to the surface. You tell yourself, ‘Exercising daily isn’t good for me anyway’ or ‘I didn’t like that workout plan anyway’.
(Side note – notice the word ‘anyway’? That word for me is a signal that I’m making an excuse).
This happened to me with Wordle… I hit a 35-day streak, missed one day, and then didn’t play it again for about 2 weeks.
But you reap the benefits of a habit over the long term, not the short term. Missing your workout one day, two days or even a week won’t make a difference to your overall fitness if you stay consistent over a year or 2 years.
So, what should you do instead?
First, cultivate awareness. By regularly practicing yoga and meditation, you start to tune in to the signals from your body and increase your ability to discern when to put mind over matter and when to rest.
Second, embrace flexibility. Personally, instead of a morning routine I like to rotate through different actions that support my wellbeing.
Some mornings I do a more powerful yoga flow, other mornings I go for a long walk, other mornings I do a short walk and quick meditation practice. The flexibility keeps me on track with my well-being without the rigidity of a strict habit.
Third, embrace inconsistency in the short term, and prioritise consistency in the long term. I would rather you continue to practice yoga for the next 10 years than for you to do 1 month of daily yoga now, only to never do it again.
The most radical transformations occur over years and decades of consistently showing up for yourself and your practice.
I love this quote –
“The truth is, what you do matters. What you do today matters. What you do every day matters. Successful people just do the things that seem to make no difference in the act of doing them and they do them over and over and over until the compound effect kicks in.”Jeff Olson, The Slight Edge
Just don’t stick to it too rigidly. Listen to your body, and respect the fluctuations in your energy, your hormones, and your motivation. Keep moving forward. A decade from now, your life could be radically transformed.