Maintaining A Habit: How To Get Back On The Horse After Slipping Up

Slinky and Negative Momentum

You have goals that you want to achieve, and habits that you want to implement in order to reach those goals.

That’s great! Unfortunately, a motivation to succeed is simply not enough.

People don’t talk about it enough, but you will fall off the horse, stray from your goal, and slip back into your old ways. And when you do make a mistake, it will be tempting to let it totally derail you.

In fact, it’s very easy to let a single mistake cascade into repeated slips, leading to negative momentum. I’d be willing to bet that the vast majority of habits that fail did so because mistakes weren’t handled properly.

Luckily, it doesn’t need to be this way. You can be more resilient and get yourself to climb back onto that horse.


Beliefs That Help You Get Back On The Horse

Certain people are able to gracefully recover from mistakes. What is it that separates them from everyone else?

First and foremost, it is their beliefs. If you can successfully adopt the following beliefs, you will be immune to the negative momentum that a slip up can cause.

You Will Make Mistakes, So Expect It

Everyone makes mistakes. Even the greatest people in every possible category make mistakes. In fact, they make many mistakes. And they know it.

This is simply a fact of life. No one is perfect (not even you!), and you can’t be on your game 100% of the time.

If you expect yourself to execute whatever plan you have flawlessly, you will inevitably be disappointed.

Let’s say you planned to stop eating dessert every day. Perhaps you could keep this up for a week, maybe even two. But sooner or later, the temptation will be too great, and you will give in.

If you are like most people, you will then feel a sense of guilt and disappointment in yourself. This feeling sucks. To protect your ego and avoid that pain, you give up on your plan altogether. Now you won’t need to feel guilty, because there is no plan to break!

Here’s the problem: the guilty feeling is completely unnecessary. If you can accept the fact that you will make mistakes, and that these mistakes are a part of the plan, then you need not feel guilty at all. Instead, just enjoy the fruits of your mistake (mmm…delicious dessert) and know that you can continue on with your plan next time.

You Are Both Responsible And In Control

When you are sticking to your habit, it’s because of the choices that you make. But when you fail, somehow it’s never your fault. There is always someone or something else to blame for it.

This is incredibly dangerous. When you make an excuse for your slip up, you are surrendering your control of the situation. And when you don’t have control, you may not be able to make the right decision next time.

No matter what external factors are in play, you are still responsible for your response to them. No matter how much the odds may be stacked against you, you still have power.

This doesn’t mean you should actively blame yourself and dwell on your mistakes. Rather, you should recognize that it is your own decisions that led to the mistake, and that you can do it right next time.


Prepare Yourself For Your Mistakes

Mistakes are inevitable, and you control your response to them.

It clearly follows that you can take measures to prepare for your mistakes in order to make recovery as easy as possible. Relying on motivation alone is a huge mistake itself; having a plan in place will drastically increase your chance of success.

Reflect On The Causes

Whenever you slip up, consider what the causes are. There is almost always some sort of “trigger” that causes you to falter. This doesn’t need to be a lengthy or difficult process.

For example, if one day you don’t go to the gym, just ask yourself why. Was it because it was raining outside? Were you just too tired or hungry after work?

There are a million possible reasons, but in most cases it is easy to pinpoint the exact reason you didn’t follow through.

It can be helpful to keep a journal for a couple weeks to see what excuses tend to pop up over and over again, but it really isn’t necessary unless you find yourself having more serious problems sticking to your routine. For most people and most goals, a quick reflection will suffice.

Have A Plan For When You Do Falter

Once you know what your most common or most likely excuses are, you can plan around them. There are two major types of solutions to these excuses, which I will call proximate and systemic.

A proximate solution is in the form of an “if-then” statement. If [excuse], then [alternate behavior]. “If it rains, I will do a bodyweight workout at home instead of going to the gym.” This type of solution works best on excuses that you can’t predict in advance. Bad weather, an emergency at work, getting stuck somewhere, etc.

A systemic solution involves changing your approach entirely. This should be done to counter more predictable excuses. For example, if you find yourself routinely being too tired to work out after you come home from work, an “if-then” solution won’t suffice. Instead, you may need to change your schedule so that you have time to work out before going in to work.


Finally, you must make yourself accountable for those times that you will slip up. Something real and tangible, besides guilt.

Feel free to decide on an acceptable level of faltering from your plan (or build it into your plan, like with a cheat day for dieters). But beyond that level, there should be consequences for your failure to stick with the program.

The best thing here is to inform a friend about what you are trying to do, and pledge to give him money when you don’t follow through. Your punishment can increase to prevent a negative momentum from building. It’s okay to not go to the gym once, but on the second day in a row you owe him $10, the third day $20, etc.

I’m sure your friend won’t mind playing this role.


A Sure-Fire Process To Get Back On The Horse After You Fall Off

Even after taking all the precautions outlined above, you will still make mistakes sometimes. When you do, here is the process you should go through to avoid negative momentum.

1. Accept Your Mistake Instead Of Dwelling On It

Ok, so you messed up and you know it. Don’t worry about it. Just relax and take a few deep breaths.

The key here is to avoid dwelling on your mistake. Acknowledge that you slipped up. It happens. And it’s no big deal as long as you are able to move on.

You can even reframe your mistake. Eating an extra portion of dessert was a welcome vacation, something to be enjoyed.

If you let your mistake suck you in and allow yourself to feel guilt and disappointment, you are far more likely to give up. Plus it just sucks.

Instead, accept that you made the mistake. Re-affirm your personal responsibility. Any excuses you have are irrelevant beyond the point where you are learning from them (see the section above).

The past is the past, and it cannot be changed.

2. Own Up To A Mistake If It Affects Others

Oftentimes your slip up only really affects you, and this step could be really easy.

But there are other times where your mistake might have ramifications for other people. If you have goals at your workplace, this is very likely.

When other people are affected, you must be able to fess up to them right away. Set things straight, apologize, and emphasize how you won’t do it again. Then don’t do it again.

Also, if you’ve made yourself accountable to someone else, you must commit to honesty and accepting whatever the agreed upon consequences of your actions were. Don’t lie and say you went to the gym just because you don’t want to pay your friend $10.

Ideally, you would actually pay them, get your 25 lashes, or whatever consequence you chose, but sometimes they aren’t around at that time. But you must commit to it now. Set aside the money. Call up your friend and tell them to bring their whip over. Whatever.

3. Change Your Focus To The Next Opportunity

Miles Davis once said, “When you hit a wrong note, it’s the next note that makes it good or bad.”

As quickly as possible after your mistake, you want to move on to focusing on your next opportunity.

You didn’t work out today, but you are ready to go at it tomorrow. There’s no need to think about working out every day, just the next one.

Focus on one step at a time, the single decision you can make at that moment that will get you back on track. If you can get back on the horse at the next opportunity, then good for you! You didn’t let it derail you.



Remember: mistakes are inevitable. If you can’t accept this, your chance of succeeding at your goals will decrease dramatically.

While it can be tempting to give up after you slip up, don’t do it. If you can consistently show resilience, success is only a matter of time.

Do you have any stories about picking yourself back up after slipping? Let me know how you were able to recover in the comments.

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  1. Hi
    This has happened to me several times when I was trying to establish the habit of running. I would run regularly for a couple of weeks and then the streak would break for some or other pressing reason. But I realized that even if I stop it, I need to re-start it again. And as long as I could re-start my practice, I knew there was nothing to worry. Slowly and steadily, with this start-stop-& re-start approach, I was able to establish a faily regular running routine and it paid off.
    Braja Patnaik recently posted..Short Tale of a Long NameMy Profile

    • Nice! It’s definitely an important realization. If you can rebound well, then the occasional lapse isn’t so bad.

  2. I quit a job 18 months ago after being in network engineering for many years. I convinced myself that I was to old to keep up with the younger guys (I wasn’t) and shelling out $2300 a month for health insurance (used to be $300) was really squeezing me. I didn’t get back on the horse and now I’m afraid to be alone and/or leave the house (anxiety and depression). I’m no longer a functional contributing member of society and it causes more shame and anxiety let alone what I’ve put my wife and grown up kids through. If you fall off get back on as fast as possible. Great article.

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