Say we’re trying to build a new habit—working out three times a week, for instance. Before long, we’re going to have to answer an important question:
“How strict should I be with myself?”
It’s tempting to take a no-excuses approach: “I just won’t miss workouts.” The problem is, we will miss. Emergencies happen, no-good-very-bad-days happen, and winning streaks can’t last forever. As someone with two kids, I feel qualified to tell you what you already know: life will sometimes get in the way, and it will not ask your opinion first.
A lax approach is no better. “I’ll work out when I can.” It’s safe to say that no one has ever stayed fit working out “when they can.” Life has a way of quietly dismantling our good intentions while we’re not paying attention.
So, we’ve got a problem. Habits are generally built on a set of strict rules, but perfect adherence to strict rules isn’t realistic. Is there a middle ground?
It turns out there is.
In the excellent book Atomic Habits, author James Clear offers a clever antidote to the all-or-nothing thinking to which many of us are so prone: never miss twice.
Aim for perfection, expect occasional failure, but always follow a failure with a success. To continue with our fitness example: it’s okay to miss a workout, but not two workouts in a row.
What’s so great about this rule is that it’s still a rule. But it’s a realistic rule. It acknowledges that excellence requires high standards and a high compliance rate with those standards, but it also allows for a bit of human failure. It’s a reasonable and self-compassionate way to hold yourself to account.
I’m a recent convert to this mindset, and I hope you’ll consider joining me. I think we can expect excellent (though not perfect) results.