Get back on track (podcast episode coming soon)

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Have you spent several days, weeks, or months painstakingly building a habit (maybe around writing) every day, and then suddenly you slipped up?

Life happened.

A couple of days went by. 

And you didn't write a word. 

And you felt deflated. You threw your hands up in the air and thought that all the hard work you put in to build the habit was wasted.

This all-or-nothing approach to habit creation is toxic and it happens to most of us. 

I've lost count of the number of times I've been excited by a vision for my future, committed to a habit, executed it faithfully for a period of time, and then ... bang!

I missed a day because ... well ... life happened. 

And then I've thrown my hands up in the air and let go of the habit completely!

On some level, I judged myself harshly for having slipped up (once) and then proceeded to punish myself by diving deeper into the crisis, knowing perfectly well that I'd have to face the consequences of this impulsive behavior later.

But it doesn't have to play out that way. 

Here's the truth:

Everyone slips up from time to time.

Slipping up doesn't mean we're a failure though. It just means we're human. 

The most successful people get back on track quickly. (A great way to do this is to set yourself up in the right environment. More on this later.) 

Here are some tips to get back on track:

1. Get enough sleep



Lack of sleep has become endemic in our culture. According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention 30 percent, or 40.6 million, of American adults are sleeping six hours or less every day.

The ping of our smartphones has a lot to do with poor sleep patterns. Most of us require at least 7 hours of sleep so the brain can do its 'housecleaning' and 'reset' itself for the next day. 

Not having adequate sleep results in sleep deficits and impacts almost every area of our lives including our moods, decision-making abilities, and our circadian rhythms.

Sleeping less than 6 hours increases your chances of stroke or heart disease. Less than six hours per night of sleep means a 48% greater chance of developing heart disease, and a 15% greater chance of a stroke. 

These are grim statistics but worth paying attention to because it's so easy to address them. Getting at least 7 hours of sleep each night has a positive impact on so many areas of our lives and is the first step towards getting back on track.

Action steps:

  • Set up a wind-down routine starting about two hours before bed where you don't engage with devices or work-related material.
  • Reflect on the day while journaling and think about what went well and what didn't.
  • Plan tomorrow today. 

2. Use timeboxing to your advantage


One of my mentors once told me, "If it's not on my calendar, it doesn't get done".

It's been said that we have a tendency to overestimate what we can achieve in a day and underestimate what we can achieve in a year. 

The problem with overestimating what we can achieve in a day is that it leads to disappointment, which then derails our progress towards our yearly goals. 

A simple way to solve this is to allocate specific amounts of time to each task on your calendar and work towards getting things done within those timeframes. 

Make sure you work some breaks into your schedule too. They're important. 

I use an application called Sunsama which is outstanding in this regard.

It includes planning capabilities (for the day and the week), incorporates calendar appointments, and also allows you to look back on the previous day and/or week and learn from your past choices. 

In my conversation, with James Clear, we talked about the importance of deciding on a specific time and place where you will do the thing you've committed to doing each day (your habit).

Scheduling it into your calendar helps you achieve this. 

Being a little rigid about this one routine (showing up at the time and place you made a commitment to doing when you decided on the habit) is a great way to keep yourself on track or to get back on track.

Showing up should happen regardless of whether you showed up the previous day (or week, or month). 

Action steps:

  • When you're planning for tomorrow, make a conscious choice to include your habit in tomorrow's plan (yes the one you missed). Put down the time and the place where you'll do it.
  • Notice any feelings of guilt or discomfort that arise in your body (I often feel a combination of guilt for having missed my habit. My all-or-nothing self also resists picking up the habit after having missed a day or more. That part of myself wants to throw it all away.)
  • Sit with the feeling and observe the sensations in your body until they dissipate.
  • Congratulate yourself and move on.

3. Show up in small ways and acknowledge every effort regardless of how small


Further to the previous point, one of the biggest demotivators is all-or-nothing thinking. When we fail to show up for one day we have a tendency to think that "all is lost".

I've observed this tendency in myself and a lot of people I've worked with over the years. 

A great way to offset this all-or-nothing thinking is to acknowledge every single effort you make to show up. The acknowledgment of each little effort breaks the destructive all-or-nothing thinking patterns. 

It works in a similar way to practicing gratitude. 

My recommendation is to write down one way in which you showed up as part of your daily journaling habit.

It's also nice to go back and read about times you showed up in the past. 

Self-efficacy is a big factor when it comes to motivation and this practice helps you build it.

Action steps:

  • Write down three things you're grateful for.
  • Make sure one of those three things about how you showed up. e.g. you wrote one sentence in your journal. Or you did one push-up.

4. Use your tribal instincts to your advantage


In my conversation with Noah Kagan, he talked a lot about accountability.

In an attempt to hold me accountable, Noah threw down a challenge that involved me agreeing to pay Noah $1000 if I didn't publish my Premium Productivity Course (which I'd been procrastinating for a while). 

It worked!

I published the course within the agreed time. 

While this approach did work, I'm not a big fan of the punitive aspect.

Personally, I prefer to have an accountability partner to whom I've made a commitment. Much like you would if you were to hire a personal trainer. 

As far as our tribal instincts are concerned, the human brain hasn't changed significantly in 50,000 years.

This approach focuses on the positive aspects of our tribal instincts. It leverages human connection and exploits the positive aspects of connection.

I believe we're hard-wired to be accountable to other humans (the tribe) and that's why this approach works so well.  

Accountability is something we're big on within the Productive Insights Membership community

Action step:

  • Reach out to someone you trust and ask them if they're ok with you checking in with them each day. Knowing you have to report to them massively increases the likelihood of you doing the thing. (As I write this blog post, I have a commitment to send my friend Andrea a list of things I'm grateful for each day.) Be sure to reciprocate in some way. Offering reciprocal accountability is perfect.  

5. Get clear on your underlying narrative (story)

planning-traveling-trip-notes-wanderkustI believe we all have a story that we tell ourselves. The script is often subconscious. We're not always conscious of the actual story, but it manifests in various ways. 

I often feel a sense of dread when I email my subscribers. When I stop to examine the feeling and what's driving it, I become aware of the story that I'm telling myself (subconsciously) that I'm a fraud and I'm going to get found out. 

Imposter syndrome is alive and well within me. In fact, it seems to be one of my specialties!

The thing is, I don't become aware of that narrative (of being a fraud) unless I pause and reflect on the feeling of dread and think about where it's coming from. 

Often I find that when I sit down to write about it (much like I'm doing now) the story 'reveals' itself to me.

This is one of the many reasons journaling is a very valuable practice. 

As it turns out, my underlying narrative is also often the reason I fall off the wagon.

For example, I don't stick to my commitment of emailing my list weekly, because the feeling of dread creeps in every time I sit down to write that email.

And unless I examine the feeling and follow the thread back to its source, I don't discover that story I'm telling myself about being an imposter. 

Getting clear on your underlying narrative can be very helpful in getting you back on track and even staying on track with your habits. 

Action steps:

  • Get clear on your underlying narrative. What's the story you tell yourself (subconsciously)? This may not be apparent right away but asking yourself the question, and listening carefully to the self-talk (and the subtext) will reveal a lot over time. 
  • Choose a different narrative. This may mean reframing your story or adopting an alter ego. Check out this conversation with Todd Herman — author of The Alter Ego effect. He explains it beautifully. (Scroll down the page for the video conversation). Todd's book — the Alter Ego Effect — is outstanding. I recommend the audio version. 

6. Cultivate a habit of making conscious choices in each present moment 

left-right-road-sign-roadFollowing on from the previous point, it pays to make deliberate choices. Focusing on the fact that we can make choices (for the most part) in each present moment, is a great way to create a sense of agency. 

Examining the underlying narrative as a practice unlocks a lot of power because it releases us from having to suppress unhelpful narratives that are holding us back. 

This means we have more emotional bandwidth and are better placed to make proactive choices in the present moment.

I think the two practices — becoming aware of your underlying story, and making conscious choices in each present moment — go hand in hand. 

Having a visual cue to remind yourself that you have the power to make choices in each present moment — no matter how small they are — is a great way to make more of those choices and exercise that power. 

Action steps:

  • Check out the book Your Erroneous zones by Wayne Dyer. He talks about the importance of living fully in each present moment and about making choices in each moment. 
  • Start engaging fully in each moment. Give yourself completely to what you're doing and do so with passion and awareness. You'll start to become aware of how much agency (and choice) you have in each moment, and you'll get into flow states more easily. 

7. Organize your (physical and digital) environment


Last but definitely not least, set yourself up for success by being meticulous about your environment. As James Clear explains so eloquently in his book — Atomic Habits — we tend to overestimate our capabilities when it comes to exercising willpower and self-discipline to stay on track. 

The truth is, our environment has a lot more to do with our success and it's quite simply the easier option. As James said to me in this conversation on YouTube: 

If you want to watch less TV don't have your lounge facing the television

The same goes for most aspects of our environment. Having a decluttered desk (this is something I'm still working on) can massively reduce anxiety and low-level stress which builds up over time. 

Having a clean desk helps to think more clearly, and make better decisions.

Changing your iPhone to greyscale reduces its attractiveness and that means you're less likely to pick it up to get a dopamine hit the next time you're bored. 

Action steps:

  • Put down an action item in your calendar to clean your desk at the end of each day. It's a great way to wind yourself down and welcome your future self back to your desk.
  • Change your phone to greyscale using these steps (these are the steps at the time of writing this post)



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