You know that moment when you start to tell yourself, I can skip [fill in your habit] today, it’s not a big deal, I’ll get it tomorrow. I’m just really busy right now and I didn’t sleep well last night. It will be better if I wait until I have more time and am rested, then I’ll do it.
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For six years, I periodically had that conversation in my own head every time I started trying to exercise. I would start ok, string together a couple days, then something would happen. I’d get to bed late, sleep really poorly, or have something I needed to do earlier than normal and the conversation would start.
I’d decide I could just get back to exercising tomorrow. Then tomorrow I would have another, or similar conversation. Same thing the next day, then the next. Eventually, I just stopped having the conversation and I just stayed in bed, not even considering getting up to exercise an option. This cycle repeated itself about twice a year when I would get frustrated enough with myself to decide to start exercising again. It always ended the same. Until it didn’t. I finally broke the cycle and figured out what my problem was.
We are all incredibly good at rationalizing whatever we want to do. Give us the tiniest speck of a reason, and we can blow it up into a full blown justification that is unassailable in our mind. It is very appealing, rationalizing feels different than quitting or just blowing something off.
If we rationalize why we can’t do the thing today, we have convinced ourselves that we just made the best choice for us, that today it would actually be better for us to not do the thing. As if that isn’t dangerous enough, once we have allowed an excuse to become a rationalized justification, we can then move to a lesser excuse and rationalize that too. All of a sudden, if we don’t get eight to ten perfect hours of sleep for three nights in a row, then that is a justification to skip a workout. It is a slippery slope, and the biggest problem is that some part of us actually wants to go down that slope because it is easier than doing the habit that day.
Plus, in the moment, it doesn’t feel like quitting all together. But if you start down that road, it will be really really difficult to ever keep a habit, even pretty easy ones. But, there is a way to beat the rationalization cycle. Don’t start it.
Sounds simple, but honestly, it’s pretty difficult. That being said, that exactly how I broke my six-year cycle of never making exercising stick. I just decided I wasn’t going to miss a workout because I was tired, no matter what. So when my son was up every hour because he was teething, I still worked out in the morning. It wasn’t a great workout, but that didn’t matter.
On pretty normal nights when I got a reasonable amount of sleep but still felt tired when I woke up, it didn’t even occur to me not to go. I had gone when I was essentially sleepless, so I could certainly get out of bed on seven hours of just ok sleep. That is not what would have happened before. Those mornings would have been skipped workouts and lead me pretty quickly to just quitting all together. If I could do it after six years of failing, you can absolutely do it too.
How to take rationalization off the table to make sure you don’t let rationalization side-track the progress you are trying to make, you have to take prophylactic steps to immunize yourself against it. If you wait until you are actually rationalizing, it’s likely too late.
First, ask yourself why you are trying to create the habit. What is the thing you are using the habit to create in your life. For me, after having a child, exercising became a vehicle to stay healthy and active so that I could keep up with my kiddo as he grew up. That was much different than the generic, so I can be healthy and look good reason I had before.
Second, you have to ask yourself if you really value that reason for creating the habit. The reality is that if you don’t really care, you just kinda care or, more often, just think you should care, you are going to find a way to rationalize not doing it.
Third, if you do care about what the habit will create in your life, decide that whatever excuse or reason you have used in the past, or anticipate using in the future, is not a legitimate reason for not doing the thing. Like committing to myself that I would not miss a workout because I was tired.
After you’ve taken those three steps and committed to yourself, tell someone else your commitment, just say it out loud to someone, or if you don’t feel comfortable enough telling someone, text or email it to someone. If you don’t feel comfortable telling anyone in any form, write it down for yourself.
Once you’ve done that, just hold yourself to that commitment. If you feel rationalization coming on, remind yourself: “that is not an option for you” (as my two-and-a-half year old tells me when I am doing something he doesn’t approve of). Now you can create the effect you want in your life you will now be equipped to fend off any rationalization that rears its ugly head in an attempt to derail your habits.
As a result, you will create those habits, and make the thing you want to create in your life an inevitability.
It’s just a matter of deciding once, and then never making the decision again.