Slip-Ups Happen: Understanding their role in growth

Have you thought you were doing a good job at building a habit or quitting an unhealthy behaviour only to – almost accidentally – go back to your old ways of behaving? Do you wonder why it’s so easy to make mistakes while changing your habits?

When trying to build a new habit or break a bad one, almost everyone will make mistakes. They can do what they want to give up or forget about what they’re supposed to be doing. They can also make impulsive decisions in the moment and act in ways they’re trying to avoid.

These mistakes are known as slip-ups. They’re often very frustrating and discouraging, but they’re an unavoidable part of the process of changing your habits, and they can even help you do a better job at changing if you’re willing to learn from them.

Understanding the process of building a habit and how slip-ups are involved

What does it take for a behaviour to become a habit? Why are slip-ups so common when building or breaking habits?

Habits are automatic behaviours you do without even thinking about them, like signalling a turn while driving or locking the door behind you. There was a time when you needed to be reminded of these things, but with practice they became instinctive and you would have to focus to stop yourself from doing them.

Unhealthy habits can be just as automatic, such as yelling when you get angry, deciding to have an unnecessary snack before bed, or procrastinating. Some habits can seem impossible to quit because the more often you do a behaviour, the more it becomes a part of who you are and more difficult to change.

Habits can be changed, but this takes time. It was once commonly believed that it takes 21 days to build a habit, but this is, unfortunately, incorrect. Depending on the complexity of the habit and your personality (so factors both within and outside of your control) it can take anywhere from 18 to 254 days to build a habit, and there’s no way to know how long it’s going to take until the new behaviour becomes habitual. Breaking a habit can take even longer.

The difficulty of changing habits makes it very easy to go back to a habit you thought you had broken or forget to do something you were confident had become habitual – you ‘slip-up’.

Slipping up isn’t the same as giving up because it’s temporary. You’re still committed, so you’ll likely regret your slip-ups either immediately after they happen or not long after. The circumstances that led to slip-ups can vary, but usually it’s a form of automatically returning to your old ways or momentarily forgetting how important changing your habits is and giving yourself permission to cheat.

Almost 100% of people will experience a slip-up while they’re working on changing.

Knowing that you’re essentially guaranteed to experience failure as you work on building or breaking a habit can be frustrating. But there are benefits to knowing this: understanding that slip-ups are completely normal and everyone else who has tried to build or break a habit has experienced them can make them less painful and less discouraging.

However, this doesn’t mean you should give yourself permission to slip-up or believe that you aren’t responsible for your mistakes. The value of understanding slip-ups is how you respond to them. Instead of being hard on yourself and potentially giving up, acknowledge that you made a mistake and learn what you can from the experience to avoid making the same mistakes in the future.

By being aware of the likelihood of making mistakes, you can plan for ways to avoid them and know what you’ll say to yourself when they happen so you can be less affected and get back on track sooner and with more confidence than you would if you thought slip-ups were signs you’re not capable of changing.

What causes a slip-up?

Why do motivated people who are committed to building or breaking a habit experience slip-ups?

The Cambridge Dictionary defines slip-ups as “a mistake someone makes by not giving something enough attention” so they’re simply the result of not being mindful enough to cat in ways that don’t come automatically.

In order to change your behaviour, you have to pay much more attention to your actions than you normally would: you have to stop yourself from doing things that come automatically and/or remember to do something you previously didn’t do too often, in addition asking yourself if the way you’re trying to change is working.

These high levels of self-observation can be exhausting, so any change to your routine, whether it’s positive or negative, has the potential to distract you and/or make it too difficult to put in the extra effort that’s needed to work on changing.

You could be adapting to a promotion you craved or a career-change you didn’t want and therefore have fewer resources to pay attention to your behaviour, going through something difficult like the end of a relationship and you need more energy than usual to maintain your mental health, or you went on holiday and wanted to live in moment without questioning all of your impulsive decisions. All of these types of distractions can take your attention away from your behaviour and cause you to slip-up, often without making the conscious decision.

A slip-up can even be a sign that you were doing well and feeling comfortable – consistently choosing good behaviours over bad was easy so you stopped focusing on your actions and that’s when your old behaviours came back.

What doesn’t cause a slip-up is being a bad person, lazy, uncommitted, or incapable of changing. There are many different reasons for slip-ups, and usually it’s as simple as not paying attention.

Are slip-ups harmful?

Slip-ups themselves are rarely harmful – unless you’re quitting something dangerous to yourself or others – but they can undermine your efforts if you let them.

One of the most common and damaging conclusions people come to after a slip-up is to believe that their mistake is evidence that they can’t change. Doubting your ability to succeed is a strong sign you’re going to quit. If you don’t believe you have the ability to change long-term, then why bother struggling if all the energy you’re putting into your goal is wasted?

They can also harm your efforts if you think a slip-up means you have to be harder on yourself to stay committed. Taking responsibility for your actions is important, but abusive self-talk is never helpful, including after a slip-up. You may need to be brutally honest with yourself, but calling yourself names and insulting yourself reduces motivation and makes you question your ability to change, so doing this after a slip-up can make it harder to succeed. If you tell yourself you’re a hopeless idiot who will never lose weight or you’re a lazy slacker for forgetting to stretch every day, you’ll believe yourself.

When you slip-up, it’s important to reflect without taking it personally. Your decisions do make slip-ups more or less likely, but they’re only evidence you didn’t make a good enough plan to change, not proof that there’s anything wrong with you or that you can’t change.

Important lessons to learn from a slip-up

When you slip-up, the most helpful reaction is to ask yourself what you can learn from this experience. Instead of asking yourself ‘What’s wrong with me?’, it’s much more valuable to ask ‘Where did I go wrong?’.

What usually needs to be addressed is your mindset and your strategy.

Some people have a fixed mindset. They believe – often subconsciously – that they can’t change, improve, or learn new skills because they think of themselves as being unchangeable. Someone with a fixed mindset is likely to quit after experiencing a slip-up because they believe that making mistakes are evidence that they can’t do what they were attempting and, since they can’t change, they may as well give up.

Fixed mindsets are highly demotivating, but they can be changed to have confidence in your ability to improve and grow. This will take time and likely make it more difficult for you to build or quit a habit, but adopting a growth mindset is worth the effort it takes because of how it can benefit you in many other areas of your life.

Slip-ups can also be harmful for someone who thinks in black and white. Thinking in black and white (also known as polarised or dichotomous thinking) means you believe that unless you’re entirely successful according to a strict definition of success – always meeting your targets and never making mistakes – you’re failing. There’s no middle ground where you’re doing okay despite a few small mistakes. A black and white thinker who is trying to lose weight could eat a slice of cake at a birthday party and then feel like a failure so they go home to order takeaway and binge on junk food.

This view is harmful because it sends you the message that there’s no difference a slip-up and quitting altogether, which makes black and white thinkers more likely to give up on their goals following a slip-up. And it’s demotivating because it makes the process of changing much more difficult than it needs to be. A small mistake doesn’t erase all of your progress or make you a failure, and there are different degrees of being successful.

Slip-ups can also be evidence that you didn’t have the best approach and show you ways you can improve your strategy.

A strategic approach to changing is essential, and slip-ups are evidence that there are problems with your strategy. Trying to change without making a plan means you’re relying on willpower to stay on track. And if you go back to working on your habit without rethinking your approach after a slip-up, you’re telling yourself that you’ll be successful this time because you’re going to try harder, which also requires high levels of sustained willpower. Unfortunately, willpower is a limited resource, so any plan that relies on willpower is unlikely to be successful.

In order to develop a strategic plan that gives you the best chances of succeeding with the fewest number of slip-ups, it’s important to ask yourself why a slip-up happened so you can modify your strategy. You can discover what was wrong with your strategy, what needs to be changed, and how you can implement these changes.

To do this, consider the context of your slip-up.

Habits are triggered by cues in your environment that lead to the often subconscious decision to react. The less often you’re exposed to cues, the less tempted you should be by your bad habits.

Sometimes these cues are easy to identify and remove – if you’re trying to break the habit of snacking on potato chips and you’re used to grabbing a handful whenever you walk past the bag on the kitchen bench, get rid of the chips or make them less accessible.

Cues can be less tangible and harder to get rid of, such as the cue for having a drink is feeling stressed or wanting a reward after a big day. Addressing these types of cues requires learning different responses, like going for a run or calling a friend when you’re stressed or rewarding yourself by not doing any housework when you had a challenging day instead of drinking.

You likely can’t remove all of the cues in your environment, but the fewer you’re exposed to and the more plans you have for what you’ll do when you experience a cue, the less likely you are to react to them.

It’s also important to have cues that remind you to do healthy things. When working on building or breaking a habit, it’s important to make good decisions easy and bad decisions hard. Slip-ups can be evidence you should make changes to your environment so making the decisions you want comes naturally. This can be as simple as a notification on your phone or a post-it somewhere you’ll see it asking if you’ve worked on your habit.

Working with someone who will help you be accountable can also make it easier to stay committed. Knowing that you’ll have to tell someone else when you don’t follow your rules or forget about your habit can motivate you to stay on track and receive support when you’re struggling, including after a slip-up. You could ask a friend or family member to work with you, but some people find it more effective to work with a professional. A professional can help you identify the cues in your environment, find ways to make healthy decisions easier, and ask you the right questions to help you develop an effective approach.

There is also a way that mindset and strategy overlap: understanding why you want to change.

Some people try to make changes by telling themselves they should change or they have to change, despite not really wanting to. Telling yourself you should do something uses logic for motivation. Only the highest levels of your brain are capable of being logical, and they stop working when you’re distracted, stressed, anxious, tired, or simply not paying attention to your behaviour. In these circumstances, the much more powerful instinctive part of your brain makes decisions. If you want to change, this desire will be stored in the deeper areas of your brain, which is where slip-ups come from.

Knowing why you want to change can make it easier to catch yourself when you’re about to slip-up because the instinctual part of your brain is also committed to making changes. Even though slip-ups are often accidental or subconscious, they’re less likely to happen if you have a clear understanding of why you want to change so you can remember your goal without consciously thinking about it and make good decisions when you’re struggling.

Once you’re ready, develop a new strategy or add what was missing to your current strategy and get back to working on changing. If you’re in too challenging of a period and don’t feel confident that you can commit to making positive changes, it may be better to give yourself permission to take a break. You’re not quitting but recognising that you can’t stay committed while going through something challenging.

You can also lower your standards for how much you try, but this should only be temporary. Giving yourself permission to bend your rules could lead you to making greater and greater allowances until you’re not actually working on changing any more. Wanting to disregard some of your rules or do more or less than you told yourself you would can be a sign that you gave yourself rules that were too strict and you should reconsider them.

Having more than one slip-up quite quickly could shake your confidence, so a break may be better for making sustainable change. However, it’s important to truly intend to resume your efforts and you should have a clear time or set of conditions that will be met that prompts you to restart.

Telling yourself you’ll get back to work when you ‘feel ready’ can become a perpetual excuse to put off changing if you don’t define what ready is and what it feels like.

With the right mindset, a strategic approach, and an emotionally motivating understanding of why your goal is important to you, you’re less likely to slip-up and your mistakes aren’t entirely negative experiences.

If you don’t anticipate slip-ups, they can be more harmful than if you were prepared

Slip-ups can be painful, frustrating, and demotivating, but they’re not evidence you should give up. Almost everyone who has attempted to build or change a habit has experienced a slip-up. Recognising that slip-ups and failure are normal can help you recover and feel ready much more quickly.

Your bad habits will never truly go away. You can make them much less automatic than they used to be but you must always be – at the bare minimum – aware that something was once a bad unhealthy habit for you so you need to be careful when exposed to circumstances that could lead to you being tempted back into old patterns of behaviour, so there’s always the possibility of experiencing a slip-up.

If you understand what a slip-up is, it’s less likely to become a reason to completely stop trying and believe it’s impossible for you to change.

“Any behaviour can be changed, you just need to find the right strategy.”

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