Habit Cultivation: Adults Have Developmental Stumbles, Too!

Today I want to offer a new perspective I am learning in my habit cultivation practice.

Whenever we learn a new skill, we expect to stop and start. We see this all around us. Babies take a few steps, then fall down. Kids ride their bikes a short distance; they don’t ride all the way around the block on the first try. When I learned to play the clarinet, I first learned Mary Had a Little Lamb, not the Stravinsky 3 pieces.

This is all normal and expected. We don’t beat ourselves up every step of the way. We celebrate every step.

With children, we also expect that each child will develop different skills at different times. Most children start to walk around the time they turn one year old. But there are some who walk at 10 months old, and fall down every few steps while they are learning. Other children crawl until they are 14 or 15 months old, and then start walking and almost never fall down.  The same is true for every milestone. Some kids meet a certain milestone early. Some late. Some kids meet one milestone very early and another milestone very late. Some kids meet most of their milestones right around the average expected time, without fail. This is all considered normal and we expect these variations. We also expect that most children will stumble many times while learning new skills.

When adults try and form new habits, it’s often the opposite. Instead of starting small and expecting to stumble a little, we start with big goals, then declare our attempts a failure and give up when we stumble. Then we beat ourselves up (either internally or to our friends). In the case of health-related habits, we talk about the fact that we started and stopped multiple times as though each attempt is isolated and separate.

What if it wasn’t? What if each attempt wasn’t an isolated and separate, but a normal part of the process of learning something new?

Assuming that the habit you have chosen is a reasonable and sustainable one that you can maintain in your life while enjoying yourself, it might help to look at the stumbles as developmental stumbles, not failures.

I came to this realization while working on my own habit goals this year. As I have written about previously, my habit goals are very specific, and over a long term period. The purpose of these goals is long term habit change, so a long term goal makes a lot of sense here. And it came with many  unexpected benefits, one of them being that it allows for initial stumbles while developing the habits!

Here are some examples of my habit goals, and  what the development of these habits looked like for me, in reality.

The Strength Workout Habit

At the end of December, I set a goal to do a strength workout 150 times in 2015 (instead of the more commonly heard “workout 3 times per week.”).

This habit I found easy from the beginning. I think this is due to the fact that I had already started the process a couple months prior to setting an official goal. I had already joined the gym, gotten back into the workouts a little bit, and gotten kiddo used to the babysitting room there (with the help of a friend!). So, by the time I set an actual goal, I had already worked through the initial developmental stumbles. As of this writing, I am up to 126 workouts (84% of the goal), so it’s looking like I could possibly finish this goal ahead of schedule this year.

The Bedtime Habit

At the end of December, I also set a goal to go to bed by 10pm.

This habit took a while to get going on. For the first month or so I had almost no successes. Turns out I needed a more clear and specific goal to have success with this one.  Also, the level of perfection I was expecting from myself was too much. In late February, when I realized this, I set a goal to go to bed by 10pm, 200 times by the end of the year (instead of the more common “I need to start going to bed earlier”). Once I added the “200 times by the end of the year” clause to the goal, I was able to start racking up some successes. As of this writing, I am up to 143 times (over 71% of the way to my goal!).

The Getting Rid of Stuff Habit

In mid-April, I set a goal to get rid of 500 items from my home by the end of the year.

On this habit I took a while to get going, but once I got going I had a lot of steam behind me and a lot of confidence, so I was able to  get rid of a lot of stuff all at once.  Though I initially set the goal in April, I got rid of most of the stuff in August. Even though my initial goal was to get rid of 500 items, I’ve easily gotten rid of 750 items so far, and I could keep going! (If you could use some help in this area, I highly recommend Marie Kondo’s book, “The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up.”)

The Walking Habit

In mid-July, I set a goal to go for a walk 75 times by the end of the year (instead of the usual goal of “go for a walk 3 times per week”).

The walking habit took a while to find a groove. I am just starting to hit my stride with this now. There were several obstacles I addressed before this habit became easier to do:

  • leg fatigue from weightlifting (which make the hills in my neighborhood look really unappealing). Solution: avoid the hills or go walk on easy trails instead.
  • scheduling (balancing a job, taking care of my kiddo, weightlifting, and my other responsibilities)
  • initially the goal was that only walks of a certain distance would “count,” and a distance goal wasn’t practical on days kiddo walks. The reality of taking walks with a kid is that sometimes you will let them walk, and not cover as much distance, and other days you will walk alone or with kiddo on your back, and you can cover more distance.  Therefore, I tweaked the goal so that any “walking on purpose” counted (not walking from a parking lot into a building, but any walk that had the intention of being an actual walk)
  • realizing that I don’t enjoying walking on pavement in bright sun and summer humidity, so if I want to enjoy my walking in the summer, trail walking in the woods would be a good option.

Once I addressed all the obstacles to incorporating more walking in my life, I was able to increase the frequency. Currently, I’m at 19 walks since I set the goal (a little over 25% of the way there). So, I’m a little behind where I was hoping to be on this habit, but now I seem to be picking up speed with these obstacles addressed, so I may still meet my goal by the end of the year. (And even if I don’t, I’m sure I will have taken more walks than I would have otherwise! )

Some Take-Away Lessons

This shows that the parenting lessons we learn about small children can also apply to ourselves. Just as each child develops some skills quickly and others later, we can expect the same when developing new habits for ourselves. The development of each habit may look different. Some habits may take off after the initial stumbles. Other habits may require more patience from us. Still other habits may need some tweaking or changes in our expectations before we are successful with them. Just like when our kids are learning new skills. From looking at my own experience, this was definitely the case!

I’m so grateful that I chose long-term goals, because it allowed for this perspective. When I imagine how different my life would be today had I simply gotten discouraged and given up on January 15 because of a normal developmental stumble……I have no words. What a profound difference.

If you have been discouraged in your habit cultivation practice, I hope this perspective will be helpful to you! If I can be of any help in figuring out how to tweak your habit goals to work better for you, leave a comment!



12 thoughts on “Habit Cultivation: Adults Have Developmental Stumbles, Too!

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