How To Build Healthy Habits That Actually Stick(Even If You Miss A Day)
Have you ever wondered how to build healthy habits that actually stick? The answer may not be what you think!
Habit tracking has been a very instrumental tool in helping me build healthy habits that actually stick over the last few years. Habits are everything when it comes to transforming our health with this real food lifestyle.
If you’re not familiar with habit tracking, the idea is based on a concept popularized by Jerry Seinfeld called “don’t break the chain.”
Whether you are using a physical paper calendar or a modern day app, the idea is you want to put an “X” or solid circle on every day that you successfully complete a habit you are working towards.
The habit you are tracking can be something you are trying to consistently do every day. Or it can be a bad habit that you are committing to NOT do for at least 30 days, to break the habit.
How To Build Healthy Habits: "Don't Break The Chain!"
After you successfully stick to this habit for a number of consecutive days, you start to see a nice chain start to develop. Jerry Seinfeld famously said that the key to building lasting habits is simply make sure that you “don’t break the chain!”
The idea is it takes at least 30 days to build a truly solid habit. I have seen some indications that the timeline is actually at least 40 days or even longer.
Many productivity experts promote the idea that to build a habit, you absolutely MUST build up a string of at least 30 consecutive days of successfully completing the habit. That means 30+ days without missing a single day. Otherwise it “doesn’t count” and you have to start over at 0, building up a new chain.
The truth is, I have seen this method work for myself. I have successfully built many healthy habits using this “don’t break the chain” habit tracking mentality.
But That's Not The Only Way
What I have noticed in my own healthy habit forming journey, as well as working 1:1 with hundreds of clients in a functional medicine coaching setting, is this:
The most pivotal moment of the habit building journey comes about when you inevitably miss a day.
You see, certain habits may stick using this habit tracking “don’t break the chain” method. Certain people are better able to keep that momentum going than others. And even for the people who are successful with it, it’s not that easy to juggle multiple habits long term.
You may find that you develop one or two habits that just become rock solid. You complete them every day almost religiously and the thought would never occur to you to miss a day.
These are usually habits that you have more control over, so it’s less likely that extenuating circumstances would get in the way that would make it impossible to complete the habit one day.
Example: "Miracle Morning" Routine
For me, this was my habit of completing a set morning routine I call the “6 minute miracle morning” every single day.
The key is it was 6 minutes. I would always find a way to fit in at least that express 6 minute version right when I woke up, even if it was a busy day.
When I had more time I would often stretch it out into a 30-60 minute leisurely morning routine. But the 6 minute version was something I was able to check the box on every single day for YEARS in a row.
(Even that successful habit tracking streak didn’t end up lasting forever, but I’ll get to that later).
Other habits are not quite as foolproof.
It’s not that you don’t have the best of intentions to follow through on them. It’s just more likely that life will get in the way.
Circumstances may happen that are outside of your control, or the day gets away from you and you realize too late that you missed your chance.
For example, recently I decided to participate in a soup challenge. For the month of October, I set an intention to consume either a bowl of soup made with bone broth or meat stock as its base, or the broth on its own, every single day for the month.
Example: 2020 Soup Challenge Results
Guess what happened? For the first 9 days I was going strong. I already started to notice some health benefits.
My skin was looking clearer and more vibrant. My hair seemed less frizzy and out of control. And it seemed my gut was really liking the nourishing properties of this broth. It was nice to be back to this habit I had previously done so consistently.
But then, on October 10th, it happened. I woke up that morning with the best of intentions to consume a mug of broth before I went to bed that night. I already had the portion of homemade broth set aside in the fridge.
I did something very atypical for me (given that it’s 2020) and drove an hour away to visit my family to celebrate my birthday. I stayed with them for a bit longer than expected and by the time I returned home it was almost midnight. I was exhausted and looking forward to getting to bed as soon as possible.
But then I opened the fridge as I was taking my bedtime supplements. I saw the broth right there, staring back at me.
I knew that I very well could choose to heat it up and consume the serving of broth before going to bed. It would likely mean staying up an extra half hour later for the sake of sticking with this challenge. But it meant I could put another check mark on the calendar I have been using for tracking this habit.
But what did I do?
I made a conscious decision to NOT follow through with my habit.
Sure, that wasn’t my decision at the start of the day. But life got in the way. Circumstances were different around 11:45 pm than they were around 11:45 am that day.
And it’s at times like this that a pivotal question comes up:
What do you do if you miss a day?
You really have two choices in a moment like this. And it all comes down to MINDSET.
I often hear productivity gurus yell that you absolutely MUST stick with it. Don’t miss a day. Follow through on your habits at all costs.
That type of behavior certainly can lead to lasting change, if you’re able to power your way through.
But there is a dark side to this. It creates an all-or-nothing, perfectionist mentality.
The all-or-nothing mentality may work well in the short run, but it tends to backfire in the long term for most people.
Have you ever started following a new diet, and done really well sticking with it for a few days or even a few weeks? But then something happens?
You’re offered something at a party or at work. Or you accidentally eat a salad that has croutons and cheese on it, thereby breaking the “rules” of your diet before you realize what you’re doing. Or you simply break down and decide to eat something that you’re really craving.
The tendency is to beat ourselves up in moments like that. We say “Screw it, I already got off track, I might as well give up trying and just go back to eating whatever I want.”
We throw in the towel on the habit tracking we were working so hard towards.
That abandonment of the habits coupled with the guilt, shame and other negative emotions we feel creates a negative spiral. This negative spiral makes us even less likely to attempt to build healthy habits again any time soon. We feel like a failure in general.
If that pattern sounds all too familiar to you, you are not alone.
I have been there myself and I have worked with countless clients who go through the same pattern.
The thing is, habit tracking can be a powerful tool when it’s actually working. But it can also have a dark side.
That’s right, I said it:
Habit tracking can have a dark side.
What if getting enough sleep is important to your health, but not a habit you are specifically working on tracking right now?
You find yourself in a similar position as I was in on October 10th. You realize right before bed that you forgot to complete your habit that day.
Does that mean you should stay up an extra half hour to complete your habit at all costs?
What if you are working on a habit of consistently walking outside for at least 30 minutes every day? This is a GREAT habit to work towards and one I have been working on myself over the years. But I never got to 100% consistency with this one.
Why not? If it’s raining outside, I am not going to go out for a walk. If it’s 10 pm and I’m about to go to bed and realize I never got a chance to walk because the day was busier than usual, I am not going to put myself at risk and push my bedtime later to go out and walk.
That being said, I have improved significantly over the years at building the right systems and environment in my life so that daily walking is just something that happens.
It’s more or less a foolproof habit because it’s harder and harder for the circumstances to exist that prevent me from walking.
But it still happens from time to time. Maybe I’m on flights all day. Maybe I have an unusually busy day at work and need to use my lunch break for a doctor’s appointment. Whatever it is, there are days where the walking just doesn’t happen.
I don’t know if I’ve ever built up a chain of 30+ consecutive days of always walking every single day. And if I have, I inevitably broke that chain at some point shortly after that.
What about the example I gave earlier about my #1 most successful habit I maintained for YEARS on a solid chain of never missing a day? My 6 minute miracle morning routine.
Well, a day finally came last November when I spent the night away from home on a trip with friends. Normally even on such a trip, I would find a way to sneak in my morning routine. Even if it means waking up a bit earlier than everyone else to make this happen.
But that day last year, I simply forgot. The day got away from me, and I didn’t even notice I hadn’t done the morning routine until that night.
Of course it was a bit sad to realize that I had missed the habit. It felt like the end of an era.
I could no longer say I had been doing that habit every single day for years. The habit tracking app I was using at the time reset to 0 consecutive days, after being at 700+ for awhile.
But guess what? That didn’t matter.
Resetting the habit tracking app to 0 did not mean I was a “failure” in any way. I had still benefited tremendously from building that solid habit in the first place.
I didn’t lose my momentum. Just like we wake up in the morning and get dressed without giving it much thought, it was something that just continued to happen.
I even stopped using the habit tracking app altogether for a few months during the very topsy turvy early days of the quarantine. But I still kept doing this habit and many others that I had been tracking.
Now the habit tracking app won’t even load on my phone. I’m a bit sad to lose all that data and the ability to track those same habits, but the habits are still there in my life.
Now you might say that the reason I was so successful with continuing my miracle morning routine even after missing a single day was precisely because of the fact that I had built up such a steady chain of not missing a day for so long.
And yes, I would agree with you on that. That’s really the point of this habit tracking philosophy in the first place. To build new habits that are truly solid and almost foolproof, to the point that you don’t even have to think about them.
But I would argue that the act of getting to 30 consecutive days is not so critical. Helpful? Yes, absolutely. But necessary? No.
The most important thing you can do if you are trying to build a new healthy habit is to keep going with trying to build that healthy habit for the long term.
If you throw in the towel and give up for any reason, you are guaranteed to fail because you stopped trying.
If you miss one day and continue with the habit for the next day and the day after that, until perhaps you miss another day, YOU ARE NOT A FAILURE.
Let’s go back to the example of the October Soup Challenge. While I would love to come here at the end of the month and claim that I successfully completed the challenge without missing a single day, that’s just not what happened.
Guess what did happen? I ended up missing 2 days. 2 out of 31 days missed. I completed the habit for 29 out of 31 days.
That means I followed through on the habit I set out to build for 93.5% of the days this month. I don’t know about you, but when I was a kid in school, 93.5% meant I received an “A” as my grade. And an “A” grade is pretty darn good in my book.
Although I was a bit of an overachiever in school, I know that even a B or C grade is still passing. I believe that means 70-80%+ and you still “pass.”
And heck, we are all grown adults now, not kids or young adults in school…
Let’s be real. 50% may get you an “F” grade in school. But it’s still a whole lot better than 0%! Even 10% or 20% is better than 0% in the real world.
We are all a work in progress. 50% one month means you still completed the habit you set out to complete for HALF the days of any given month. This is still worth celebrating.
In the real world, it’s about progress, not perfection.
If you get a 50% or 60% or whatever % that’s less than 100% for one month, does that mean you “failed” at the habit because you didn’t achieve that golden rule of building up a solid string of X’s for 30 days without breaking the chain?
Some may disagree with me on this, but I say NO!!! You did not fail just because you didn’t hit 100%.
Are you getting intentional about setting habits that you want to work to build?
Have you been writing down your goals?
Are you using some sort of system to track your progress towards completing that habit?
You are one step closer to making that habit a reality.
Leaps and bounds, really.
If you complete a certain habit for HALF the days in a month, I’d be willing to bet that you started setting up systems in your life to make that habit a reality. Maybe those systems aren’t foolproof yet. But you are getting there.
I believe our brains have some form of “muscle memory” when it comes to building habits. And contrary to popular opinion, that muscle memory does not ONLY activate when you complete a certain habit for 30+ consecutive days without fail.
If you get 70%, 80%, 90%, or even any amount above 0% for the month, you are flexing that muscle. If you keep going with it, maybe next month you will do 10% better than you did this month.
Maybe you will eventually hit 100%. That is certainly the goal to aim for when it comes to most habits. But it’s not the only way to form a habit.
The biggest danger when it comes to forming new healthy habits is the self sabotage behavior that stems from that all-or-nothing mindset.
If you decide that no matter what happens, you will simply keep going and not stop, you are virtually guaranteed to eventually succeed with the new habit.
If you throw in the towel and give up because you miss a day, you are virtually guaranteed to fail, because you are no longer trying.
Yes, it feels a little disappointing to miss a day. That’s true whether you’ve built up a string of 700+ consecutive days like I had with my morning routine, or whether you are participating in a 30 day challenge and miss a day 10 days in.
Let yourself feel the disappointment and frustration. Think about what caused this and what you might be able to do differently in the future to avoid this.
But then, dust yourself off. Don’t stay in those negative emotions too long. Or worse, don’t let them spiral into bigger negative emotions such as guilt, shame or feeling like a failure at life.
Celebrate the fact that tomorrow is another day.
Tomorrow is another opportunity to put an X on the calendar or a solid dot on your habit tracking app.
Celebrate the fact that if you only miss one day this month, you will still land at over a 90% completion rate, which is still an “A.”
And even if you miss more days, you are still working towards a new habit and receiving real benefits from the days that you do complete it.
How to build healthy habits that actually stick? Continue to work at these new habits.
Day after day, week after week, month after month, year after year. Whether you miss a day here and there or not. Or even if you go through a rough patch of missing every single day for awhile, until you get back on track.
True success at habit tracking comes from continuing to track and work at these habits for the LONG term. Not from hitting one month of 30 consecutive days.
Yes, that 100% month is still a good ideal to aim for in the short term.
If you do achieve such a month, it can be a really powerful tool to help you carry this momentum forward long term to make this habit stick. But it’s not a prerequisite to success.
One of the worst things you can do is give up on the pursuit of healthy habits or the habit of habit tracking. Meta, I know.
Whether you are trying to walk every day, consume bone broth, get off gluten and sugar or any number of diet changes…I encourage you to shift your mindset.
Instead of taking an all-or-nothing mindset and feeling like a failure if you miss one day, try to adopt a mindset of a scientific researcher.
By tracking your habits, you are gathering data. Your goal may be to hit that habit every single day. You are going to aim for that goal and work on setting up systems in your life to make that a reality.
But as a researcher, you are somewhat detached from the outcome. You are able to observe a concrete outcome at the end of the month: number of days you completed the habit. You can compute your percentage rate of following through with the habit.
If that number comes in lower than expected, you may analyze the data, ask yourself why that may have happened. But you don’t quit the experiment just because the data is not going in the direction you wanted.
Even if every single day you have to record “-” or “missed” on your calendar or app, you continue to objectively gather the data. You don’t beat yourself up or stop tracking for any reason.
Until one day, something clicks.
Suddenly, all that data and the awareness it brought you causes subtle shifts in your behavior.
Almost without even knowing why it’s happening, you start to build momentum.
More often than not you are able to put an “X” on the calendar each day for having completed the habit. It suddenly feels quite seamless.
That has been my experience, especially lately with the difficult emotional climate that the pandemic brought with it. It’s been HARD to stick to some habits these days.
But the more you can continue the process of setting intentions, deciding which habits you will work on, and tracking even if you are missing almost every single day for awhile…
The more likely it is that you will eventually find yourself in a place where those habits end up just happening.
If you are observational and objective with that scientific mindset, sooner than later a subsconscious shift will happen. You simply will not be able to continue on the path of not following through on that habit for much longer.
There are a lot of different tools and tricks for being successful with habit tracking and building healthy habits. I could literally write a novel on this. Maybe someday I will.
But I hope this slightly unconventional approach to the question of how to build healthy habits was helpful for you.
Mindset can either be our best friend or worst enemy on this type of health journey. I hope you choose the former and ditch the self-sabotage, all-or-nothing perfectionist mentality.
Please let me know if you have any questions about this topic as well as any thoughts or reactions you have.