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Use habit not guilt to stay on track

Improving Systems and Habits

Scott Miker is the author of several books that describe how to use systems and habits to improve.  This free blog provides articles that to help understand the principles related to building systems.  

Use habit not guilt to stay on track

Scott Miker

My natural tendency when I start to slack off on my goals is to feel guilty.  I used to use this to try and motivate me to get back on track.

I assumed that feeling guilty would push me towards my goals and that I needed this extra motivation if I was going to stick with it enough to achieve whatever metric I set.

But over time I have realized that guilt isn’t really a good motivator.  It can be motivating at times but our tendency is always to reduce the guilt, not tackle challenges causing the guilt.

In other words, we simply want to find a way to stop feeling guilty.  But, that doesn’t automatically mean that we will get back to work.  In fact, I found that there are many ways that I can reduce the level of guilt I feel and most of the time it isn’t by being productive. 

I could use distraction, justification, and any number of defense strategies to explain why it isn’t my fault.  I could find external reasons or extenuating circumstances to justify my failure.

It wasn’t until I started to focus on building positive habits to reach goals that I completely understood the role that guilt had played. 

When I started to work on small, systematic steps towards a goal I would find that I could make great progress over time.  But inevitably I would slip up at some point.  My initial reaction was guilt.  But guilt caused an increase in anxiety, which actually made it less likely that I would get back on track.  So I had to find a way to get back on track without guilting myself to death.

A better approach is leniency.  I started to become lenient during these times.  I wouldn’t harp on the fact that I slipped up.  I would simply say that I can get back to it tomorrow and as long as I get back on track, this small slip up won’t matter.   And it didn’t matter, as long as I got back on track.

But the lenient approach seems to be more of a cop out than anything.  It seems like it gives us an easy way to quit.  But without the anxiety and guilt, it actually makes it easier to stick to a new routine or habit. 

The example that I use in my book, You Can’t Surf from the Shore, deals with cleaning.  If we want to clean our house we can try to guilt ourselves into doing it.  But when we do this we try everything possible to get out of cleaning the house.

I would sit around and watch TV and say that once I am motivated I will start.  But the motivation never came. 

But by switching to a lenient mindset I would just start by doing something small.  The key was that I was doing something.  By doing something I would actually start to get motivated.  By completing a small task we feel a boost of energy that can then lead to enough motivation to keep going.

So rely on leniency when you slip up.  Guilt isn’t as good of a motivator as we think it is.  A better approach is to relax and simply get back to it.  If we haven’t even started yet, and are using guilt to get going, then relax and simply do something.  By doing something we will gain a little motivation to give us enough momentum to keep going.