Habits are the invisible architecture of everyday life, and a significant element of happiness. If we have habits that work for us, we’re much more likely to be happy, healthy, productive, and creative.
My book, Better Than Before, describes the multiple strategies we can exploit to change our habits. Today, I’m talking about the Strategy of Safeguards. When it comes to sticking to a good habit, it really helps to plan to fail. What will we do in the face of challenges to the habit? With the Strategy of Safeguards, you try to anticipate and minimize temptation—both in your environment and in your own mind.
For instance, I’ve got the habit of exercise, I’ve been exercising for years, and I feel physically uncomfortable if I go several days without exercise, and yet this habit always feels slightly at risk. There’s a downward pull toward bad habits that requires us to maintain an active, concrete effort to protect our good habits—remarkably, even the good habits that we enjoy.
The Strategy of Safeguards keeps one lapse from turning into a full relapse. With “if-then” planning, we try to plan for every habit challenge that might arise, so we don’t make decisions in the heat of the moment—we’ve already decided how to behave.
People who use if-then planning are much more likely to stick to their good habits than people who don’t.
As the proverbs hold, “A stumble may prevent a fall” and “He that stumbles, and does not quite fall, gains a step.” I remind myself that a stumble doesn’t mean total failure. In fact, a stumble may be helpful, because it shows me where I need to concentrate my efforts in order to do better next time. Planning for a stumble during habit formation almost seems like giving ourselves permission to stumble—but it’s not. It’s a way to protect a habit.
A version of this post originally appeared on Gretchen Rubin’s website, where she writes about her experiments in the pursuit of happiness and good habits.