What to Do When You Fall Back Into Your Old, Less Productive Ways

What happens after you’ve tried a new productivity routine for a few hours, a day, or even a week only to then find yourself seemingly right back where you started? Do you give up? Or try once more with renewed determination to make the habit stick?

Your answer to the above question plays a massive role in your ability to bring about change in many areas of your life, including your time investment. Losing weight doesn’t happen in a completely linear fashion, and neither does retraining yourself to make a new behavior stick. New habits happen in a two steps forward, one step back pattern. It’s not just having the right system that matters, but grooving the habit so that you reflexively respond in the correct manner.

Here’s how to keep at it, even when faced with the inevitable discouraging relapses that can happen in the process of creating lasting behavioral change:

Determine what led to the relapse

When you notice that you have reverted to an old way of behaving, it’s tempting to take the easy way out by blaming the system or blaming yourself. Whether you take the “Stupid Technique” or “Stupid Me” approach, you end up diminishing your desire to try again because you see yourself as a victim of external circumstances. To experience lasting habit change, you need to look at the situation as an opportunity to learn what you can do to create a different outcome in the future. Instead of overreacting to the blip, step back from it, see it as an incident instead of an indictment, and then examine it like Sherlock Holmes looking for clues.

For example, you could ask yourself: What happened before the slip? Did I encounter a specific trigger event such as a last-minute client request? Was there an unusual circumstance such as sickness? When did I first notice the reversion in my behavior? Is some part of this routine unsustainable and if so, how could I adjust it to make it more realistic?

It’s tempting to take the easy way out by blaming the system or blaming yourself.

Determine solutions

Once you determine what happened that led to the relapse, proactively decide what new pattern of replacement behavior you want to practice. For example: If I start to feel frantic, then I will step away from my computer and plan out my day instead of jumping into more work. If I receive a last-minute client request, then I will think through whether to accept it or to decline the short deadline. If I am sick, then I will reduce my exercise routine and increase my sleep time.

Recognize deviations quickly by checking in daily

Recording what you do on a daily basis can help you more rapidly notice when you get off track. For example, I’ve had clients who have benefited from writing up their daily accomplishments in Evernote or going down a checklist at the end of each day. These reviews of the past 24 hours help you to pick up on deviations from your routine before weeks or months have passed by. By “checking in” on your habit every day, you’ll be more aware of any changes and less likely to slip up.

Remember that relapses happen

If you become afraid of any “slip” in your behavior, you can end up paranoid about falling back into old habit patterns. The way to bypass fear of failure is to give yourself permission to take life moment by moment.

By ‘checking in’ on your habit every day, you’ll be more aware of any changes and less likely to slip up.

When a thought comes to mind like “Why are you even trying? You’re just going to screw this up.” You can calmly acknowledge that yes, you may get off track in the future, but right here and right now you will focus on what you can do in the moment. Letting go of fear of failure lowers your perception of risk and heightens your chance of success in lasting habit change.

With the right attitude and approach, you can overcome relapses and move forward on your time investment goals.

How About You?

How do you respond when you notice a relapse in a new behavior?

Elizabeth Grace Saunders

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Elizabeth Grace Saunders is the founder of Real Life E Time Coaching & Training and author of The 3 Secrets to Effective Time Investment: How to Achieve More Success With Less Stress and How to Invest Your Time Like Money. Find out how you can accomplish more with peace and confidence at http://www.RealLifeE.com.
load comments (30)
  • dtowers

    For me It’s easy to be hard on myself when I get off track. But reading this helps me to realize that I will make mistakes! And those mistakes is what’s making a pro! What say you?

  • Elizabeth Saunders

    Exactly. It’s a process of gradual improvement that leads to lasting behavioral change.

    Just like a toddler learning to walk, falling down every once in a while is a natural part of the process.

    To your brilliance!
    Elizabeth Grace Saunders

  • lolex

    i just stop wasting time and be awesome instead ^_^

  • Elizabeth Saunders

    Glad that works for you!

    To your awesomeness!
    Elizabeth Grace Saunders

  • David Hiatt

    Very thought Provoking Thank you

  • Elizabeth Saunders

    You’re very welcome David!

    I think this is one of the biggest secrets to making time management habits stick. Not giving up!

    To your brilliance!
    Elizabeth Grace Saunders

  • James Christian Erickson

    I believe this is my greatest downfall in my march as a productive creative, and even as a person in general. This article was very perceptive and much needed. I am going to print this out right now and pin it to my wall. You, my good Lady, have made the wall.

  • Elizabeth Saunders

    Whoohoo!!! I know making it on the wall is one of the highest compliments in the world of creative professionals. Thanks for the honor.

    I’m glad to hear that you found this article helpful. Yes! Please! Don’t give up.

    To “relapse” is human. To keep at it, divine.

    To your brilliance!
    Elizabeth Grace Saunders

  • charlestonprgirl

    Let up on the pressure and have some easy fun. Gives my thoughts time to prioritize themselves so I can reevaluate my methods/behaviors and adjust them as necessary.

  • charlestonprgirl

    This post came to me at a perfect time

  • Elizabeth Saunders

    Glad to hear that this came to you at the perfect time.

    You are absolutely correct that it’s essential to step away and gain perspective. This is a huge key to resilience.

    To your brilliance!
    Elizabeth Grace Saunders

  • Rusty Dubree

    There is a great book out there that speaks perfectly to this called “The Power of Habit”. Essentially a habit consists of a cue (as this article mentions) followed by a routine, in which your brain then receives a “reward”. Since 90% our actions are governed by habits good or bad it would make sense as to why this would be a struggle.

  • S.Mila Z.

    I experience, lately quite consciously, that Sometimes it’s better to stop …
    struggling / fighting / Trying (so hard, or plainly just so wrong haha..) ..So Leave it Be! Put your energies on other things (best assisting someone else in their something, or just getting far away from whatever your own battle was). Let your things Release n’ Relax and it will be untangling itself so that when you get back to it finally you find it way easier /smoother that be4.

  • Hi Dee

    So nice to know that I am not the only one who struggles with productivity! I find my biggest obstacle is reprogramming my brain so that it believes that there will actually be a reward, because due to past experiences, sometimes hard work results in …. disappointment. Sometimes it feels better just to go back to bed, but this is a habit that I need to break! Try and try again, it’s all I can do. I came across this computer program to help with productivity – looks pretty simple & effective – I might just give it a try!

  • James Ballard

    I’ve been using the Pomodoro technique by putting a timer on 1 focused task ( ie 25 minutes to clear out emails and return phone calls, 25 minutes to design a User Interface, 25 minutes to finish a branding proposal ). Then take a 5 minute break in between tasks to relax and get ready for the next one.

    This was a total paradigm shift for me. I am now able to really focus and get stuff done and jettison all of my distractions ( which I assign as tasks now ).

    I am now trying to implement this when I am not so busy with deadlines so I can start focusing on New Business, taxes and other mundane stuff I always seem to put off.

  • Jessica

    Brilliant article!! Thanks so much! Love it

  • Alex

    1. Don’t beat yourself over a slip, yes it’s important to look at why it happened but also congratulate yourself on the X number of days before when you were sticking with it.

    2. If it keeps happening, consider that there may be some underlying reasons why you continue to slip. It may be a case of taking a closer look at yourself beyond the confines of the particular area the behaviour relates to. We usually stick to patterns of behaviour, even ones that are on the face of it negative, because they fulfil some useful function for us. Sometimes, just working out why we do things can play a massive role in enabling change.

    3. Talk to other people with similar issues and trying similar solutions to see what works, and doesn’t, for them.

    4. If it really ain’t working for you, try some alternatives; there’s more than one way to skin a cat.

  • Micah Choquette

    Another great book in line with this “checking on yourself” idea is Peter Bregman’s 18 Minutes. Highly recommended. http://peterbregman.com/18-min

  • Elizabeth Saunders

    Very true! This is why we need to be very intentional about what habits we develop in our lives.

    The path of least resistance usually always wins.

    To your brilliance!
    Elizabeth Grace Saunders

  • Elizabeth Saunders

    Perfect! Glad to hear that you found something that worked well for you and that you can come back to whenever deadlines aren’t eminent.

    To your brilliance!

  • Elizabeth Saunders

    Exactly! The key is to continue to try and to stay positive!

    To your brilliance!
    Elizabeth Grace Saunders

  • Renan

    Im really interested in this kind of perception. I`m from Brazil and i dont know if i understood everything of the text. But fucus is my problem now. I can’t work anymore, slip is all i do. I can’t use any technic because i forget it or slip on it too. Im working with a psychologist now, but this text is really helpful. Thanks a lot! I hope i find my solution

  • Simon Malcolm

    I have started 2013 with a resolve to be better organised. Ha…I must sound like everyone else…perhaps I should lose weight…hang on, I did that – I lost 15kg in 100 days. I’m planning on applying the same technique that helped me lose the weight – little by little. I planned to lose 100 grams per day for 100 days and I knew some days I would win and some days I would lose.

    Elizabeth, thank you for encouraging to realise that being better organised and efficient can be achieved in the same manner. I have your book on my ‘to read’ list – just as soon as I finish the book I’m on.

    Your article has helped me very much – thank you :)

    Simon Malcolm,
    Adelaide, South Australia.

  • Noe Teyssedou

    :). I was talking yesterday with a friend how the Pomodoro technique totally changed my life and multiplied my productivity by two…

  • Karim

    I really do like this post, Top Niche designs with a high quality pictures here. Thanks for sharing them,


  • Dominic Velando

    I agree that the being self-deprecating and beating yourself up is extremely counter-productive. I’m not sure why we seem to think it’s the right thing to do, but I definitely used to make a ritual and felt convinced that I should punish myself severely every time I repeated a bad habit. It wasn’t until I started making the effort to really praise and forgive myself that I started to notice my bad habits releasing their grip on me after years and years.

    I might also add that I have been told over and over to “just do it” and will myself to be disciplined. This works for some, but the reason I wasn’t just acting is because I think myself in circles. When I started objectively searching for the deeper meanings driving my behavior, I was able to use the power of my thinking to make the changes I needed.

    • Susan Jones

      yea, “just do it” only works if it works. HOwever, I used it to get a huge paper done when I applied it to mean “Just do *this.* *Don’t* do anythign else. No. NOt the dishes, not one more walk to get, not… Just. Do. This.” Just etting the backside nailed to the desk for that first hour was big…

  • Lonn

    So much Cognitive Behavioral Therapy in this post–not sure you realize. It’s great stuff either way.

  • Arjan

    Don’t beat yourself up when slipping back. Just think “Oh well” and pick up where you left. That’s what works for me. Be as gentle on yourself as you would be on your friends.

  • Edgar

    read the book start where you are by Christopher Gardner even when you fail pick yourself up and do it again

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