Habit Relapse: What To Do If You Fall From Your Diet or Good Habits

A few people have written me recently about falling off their good habits: a relapse after months of healthy eating, or getting derailed from good habits they’ve been forming like exercise or writing.

It’s discouraging to fall off your diet or good habits, and you an get to a point where you don’t even want to think about it.

So what to do? How do you deal with a relapse?

There’s no easy answer, to be honest. I’ve “failed” and restarted a number of habits, and I now think of relapsing as just another part of the process. We’re constantly learning about ourselves as we change our habits, which is the real point of habit change — it’s self learning, not self-improvement or self-discipline. We learn about our minds, about feelings of guilt and frustration, about coping with these feelings.

There are no easy answers, but I’m going to share some things you might try:

Pause to reflect. One of the biggest problems is that when we don’t even want to acknowledge our relapse. We avoid thinking about it. So the first step is to take a slight pause in your day, and reflect on where you are. You were doing great, then you slipped up. It could have been for a lot of different reasons, but just know that you’re not alone, that we all slip up, and that the forces that we’re facing can often be too great for us at our weakest points. That’s OK. Reflect on this, and know that it’s not the end of the world.
Acknowledge your feelings. It can be difficult to get off track, and we can feel like failures, feel discouraged, feel frustrated with ourselves, disappointed, sad, alone, tired, angry … sometimes multiple feelings at once. It’s OK to feel these things. We often try to avoid thinking about these feelings, but just for a minute, give yourself space to feel them, to really see them inside yourself, and accept these feelings as a part of your experience.
Give yourself compassion. If you’re experiencing some of these difficult feelings, after acknowledging them, try giving them some love. Imagine if a friend were feeling pain — wouldn’t you comfort your friend, give them a hug, listen to them, be compassionate? We deserve to treat ourselves with that same love and compassion. Listen to your mind’s difficulties, wish for your own happiness, give yourself a virtual (or real) hug, give yourself some love. It’s OK to feel these things, and it’s OK to wish for an end to your difficulties.
Focus on the intention. Why did you start the good habit in the first place? Was it to nurture yourself, give yourself the gift of good health, allow yourself creative expression through your writing (or painting, music, etc.), help others? These intentions are important to remember, to help yourself get back on track. You got derailed because you forgot your intention, or other priorities became more important. Now decide whether your intention for this habit is important enough to devote some time to. If so, keep your intention in mind as you get started again.
Take the smallest step. With this good intention in mind, what is the next step you can take? Can you make it even easier? For example, instead of overhauling your entire diet, can you eat one carrot? One apple? Instead of doing a weekly workout plan, can you go for a 5-minute walk? Do 1 pushup? Taking the smallest step helps you reaffirm your commitment to yourself and your intention. Then you focus on the next tiny step.
There is no past, only this step. All the relapses, all the failures, all the troubles … these now exist only in your head. Instead of dwelling on them, try focusing on the next tiny step. What is that like? Try to fully experience it, and see that in this moment, this small action is not difficult. In this small action, you are OK. Let go of everything else that’s happened, and be here with your intention and your current action.
Approach the learning with curiosity. We often think “Oh, I have no discipline” or “I suck at this” or some other thought about ourselves or about the new habit we would like to form. These are preconceived ideas about ourselves or the habits … instead, try going into the next small step with an open mind, not knowing how it will be. This new habit (or old one, revisited) is not a robotic action you’re trying to create in yourself, but rather a part of a learning process, where you learn more about yourself. In this spirit of learning, approach the process with curiosity, openness, not-knowing. See what it’s like! Try to appreciate every little detail about the habit that you can notice.

I don’t pretend that this is a quick-fix solution, but these elements often have very good effects for me. I am not perfect in doing these steps by any means, just as I’m not perfect at doing my habit. But in the process of learning about myself, in the failure and restarting and finding out … the habit I’m doing in all its messiness is absolutely perfect.

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