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Have you ever fallen off track while trying to install or maintain a not-quite-daily habit such as exercising 3-4 days a week or getting up at 5am on weekdays? This article will share some simple ideas to help you maintain such habits more easily.
If you perform a certain task every day for weeks on end, it’s usually pretty easy to maintain. However, once you take a day or two off, it can be harder to start up again on your next “on” day. For example, if you get up early every weekday and then sleep in late on Saturday and Sunday, waking up Monday morning often feels harder, and you’re more likely to oversleep. Before you know it, you’ve blown your positive habit completely, and somehow every day has become an off day.
1. Make it daily anyway.
The first solution is to turn almost-daily habits into daily habits. Sometimes it’s no big deal to continue the habit even when it isn’t necessary, and the upside is that you’ll have a stronger habit with less risk of losing ground.
For example, I like to get up early 7 days a week. I find this much easier to maintain than getting up early 5-6 days per week. If I get up at 5am every single morning, it’s really no big deal. But if I stay out late one night and sleep in until 7am, it’s always harder to get up at 5am the following morning. Every once in a while I’ll stay out past midnight and sleep in late, but my default is to get up with the alarm at the same time every morning.
Even though I don’t need to get up early every day, the habit is beneficial for me every day, so there’s no reason to limit it to weekdays. Although it might seem harder to do it 7 days instead of 5-6 days, it’s actually easier to be consistent.
With close to 100% daily consistency, a habit will typically maintain itself on autopilot, so you don’t even have to think about it anymore. But with 80-90% consistency, the contrast between your on and off days is always in the back of your mind. Do I have to get up early tomorrow, or can I sleep in late? Do I need to exercise tomorrow, or can I skip it? If you have a lot of almost-daily habits, this can be a big cognitive burden and quite a distraction. Maintaining good habits becomes much more difficult than necessary.
2. Use placeholder habits.
Another option is to create an alternative, placeholder habit for your off days.
Suppose you want to exercise 5 days a week, and you really want to keep those off days. Instead of doing your regular exercise, you could schedule an an alternative activity for the same time.
Instead of doing your usual workout, you could use your off days to go for a walk, read, meditate, write in your journal, etc.
I recommend that you use placeholder habits that are similar in some way to the original habit. For example, on your off days for exercise, you could still do something physical like walking, stretching, or yoga. This turns your physical development into an everyday practice, even though you’re doing different activities each day.
3. Chain Habits.
When you chain a series of habits together, they become easier to maintain. As soon as you begin the first habit in the chain, the rest of the sequence will tend to take care of itself.
My usual morning routine involves getting up, hitting the gym, showering, getting dressed, eating breakfast, etc. It’s a pretty stable pattern. But sometimes when I feel I’m at risk of overtraining, I’ll skip my workout without substituting anything. When this happens I can just jump to the next link in my morning habit chain, which means I’ll get up and then shower.
I find that when I occasionally skip habits that are part of a longer daily chain, it’s fairly easy to put them back in again as long as I continue to maintain the first and last links in the chain. As long as I get up early and go to the gym or get up early and then shower, my not-quite-daily exercise habit remains pretty solid. But if I mess with the first link in the chain and don’t get up at my usual time, the whole sequence is more likely to be blown.
So the idea is to put your not-quite-daily habits in the middle of a chain of daily habits. If you maintain the overall chain, you’ll probably find it easier to maintain the middle links as well, even though you sometimes skip them.
4. Make specific commitments.
If there are certain habits you won’t perform every day, decide exactly when you will perform them.
“I’m going to exercise 3-4 days per week” is too vague and wishy-washy. “I’ll do a 30-minute workout at the gym every Monday, Wednesday, Friday, and Saturday morning at 6:30am, alternating between weight training and aerobic conditioning” is much better. The more specific your commitment, the better.
Block out time on your schedule, and add these commitments to your calendar. Be sure not to schedule anything else for those times.
It’s very easy to fail when you give yourself too many outs and don’t really commit. On any given day, there should be no question as to whether you will or won’t perform your habitual activity. Ditch the mights, maybes, and shoulds. Either you will or you won’t. Decide in advance what it will be.
5. Turn habits into appointments.
If you have a hard time maintaining irregular habits, find a way to turn them into appointments that involve someone else. It’s easier to ditch a habit if you’re only accountable to yourself, but most people are less willing to skip appointments that would leave someone else hanging.
Get a workout buddy. Schedule early AM phone calls with another early riser. Plan home organizing time with your roommate(s) at the same time every week. Schedule regular babysitting for date nights with your spouse.
Your accountability will be greater when you involve others in your not-quite-daily habits.
Theses are just some of the tactics you can use to improve your ability to maintain irregular habits. For a list of specific habits that will give you some ideas, see the article 10 Ways to Optimize Your Normal Days.