What's your Plan B?
When it comes to changing our habits, our behaviors or our routines we will experience failures (note the "s" - as in multiple failures). Habits, behaviors and routines are deeply embedded and often done unconsciously. It takes enormous effort to change these things. So why do we expect perfection of ourselves? Why do we think that simply deciding or wanting to change is enough and that once we've done so, we should execute perfectly? The truth is we will not be perfect. No matter how motivated we are, how much we want something, or how committed we are, we will forget or lapse back into old habits. When this happens, there's a tendency to beat ourselves up. To start down the path of all or nothing thinking.
Perfection and failure are not the only options. Instead of expecting perfection, why not make a Plan B?
We naturally have a Plan B for big things. I'm pretty sure there isn't a couple planning an outdoor wedding that doesn't have a plan B for rain; a student seeking admission to a prestigious university or elite program also applying elsewhere just in case; or an entrepreneur starting a business who hasn't given thought to what happens if it doesn't work out. We tend to create backup plans when things are really important to us and there's a reasonable chance that something will occur to disrupt plan A. So why don't we create backup plans for our habit or behavior change? For illustrative purposes, let's say that the habit we are trying to build it to exercise regularly. Our goal is to workout 5 days a week during our lunch break. We start out excited and enthusiastic. Motivation is high and the first couple of days go well. Then something comes up. Maybe you get busy and caught up with work, a meeting runs long, or you forgot to bring your workout gear. Whatever the reason, your plan to workout at lunch is no longer an option. Now what?
When it comes to daily habits, the backup plan is, I'll do it tomorrow. But that's not really a lan B - that's just the most convenient default option. And what happens when you don't do it tomorrow and tomorrow becomes the next day and the next and then all of a sudden it's been 3 weeks?
Now imagine what it would be like if you had a Plan B. A backup plan that you can rely on when life happens.
Building an effective Plan B
Plan B doesn't have to be complicated, in fact it shouldn't be (see point 3 below) and incorporating a few key elements can make it extremely effective.
Make it something you can do the same day instead of what you'd planned. Remember that we are trying to maintain momentum towards a daily behavior. Our example was focused on exercise - a Plan B could be a shorter workout - say 15 or 20 minutes instead of 30 or 40. Or a workout done after work instead of at lunch.
Make it something that moves you toward your desired outcome or overarching goal. A direct connection makes the most sense, but feel free to get creative. Doing a shorter workout is a scaled down version of the original plan, but combining exercise with family time by playing ball with your kids or going for a bike ride with your spouse still moves you toward the goal of getting more exercise.
Make it a 5 minute action - something small and simple; remember this is Plan B, if it requires as much or more effort than plan A, it's not going to happen. In our exercise example, you could set a timer for 5 minutes and alternate 30 seconds of body weight exercises like squats, lunges, push-ups and tricep dips with 30 seconds of rest. Or go for a 5 minute walk around the block.
Make it something you are confident you can do, no matter what. Plan B is all about keeping your commitment to yourself. Choose a Plan B that allows you to honor both the commitment and the reality of current circumstances. Even if it's been a long day and you truly don't have the energy or motivation for a workout, you know that no matter what, you can do 10 jumping jacks.
Benefits of a back up plan
Ironically, by thinking of the obstacles you may encounter and the circumstances under which you may need a Plan B, you've already done some of the work to avoid them. Spending just a few minutes thinking of challenges and obstacles allows us to consciously or subconsciously prepare for them.
Interestingly, the biggest benefits of Plan B are mental. Taking action builds self-efficacy - an individual's belief in his or her capacity to execute behaviors necessary to produce specific performance attainments - or more simply - the belief in your ability to reach your goal or build that new lifestyle habit. Executing Plan B requires taking action and that builds self-efficacy.
Having a Plan B, even if you don't need to use it can reduce the fear of failure. Just knowing that there's another option can provide the encouragement to step out of one's comfort zone and into the challenge zone. And when you use Plan B, you've still taken a meaningful action toward change. This is crucial because it eliminates or greatly reduces the negative thoughts or inner dialogue around feelings of failure.
Give yourself full credit
Be wary of perfectionist tendencies, or the inner critic that will tell you that Plan B isn't good enough or that it doesn't count. Don't listen to that nonsense. Plan B is perfectly legitimate. The key with Plan B is that you have to give yourself as much credit as you would have given yourself for plan A. Change is hard. Changing behavior takes effort. Plan B still requires effort and in some ways even more effort than plan A because now, not only are you fighting habits and status quo, you are also battling that internal voice - the one saying that you are a failure, that you don't have the strength to persevere when the going gets tough, or that you always give up. Following thru with Plan B is the proof that all those thoughts are not true.
Write out your plan and capture data like a scientist
According to a study on goal setting, people who write down their goals are more likely to achieve them than those who don’t. Additionally, recording progress against the plan further increases success. Tracking adherence to your plan offers a wealth of information and insights. First and foremost, it provides a sense of pride and accomplishment at being able to check off the planned action for the day. Several days of check marks in a row becomes motivation to maintain the streak. Second, it provides evidence of success, as short term memory - is just that - short term and not always reliable! 😉 Think of yourself like a scientist collecting data. How can you use that data? What patterns do you notice? How does your perspective shift when you review the data? Let's say that you review the data from the last 7 days and observe that you followed your original plan 3 times and Plan B twice - resulting in five successful days. Having a Plan B increased your rate of success rate 43% to 71%. In addition, by observing trends, you notice that you do well during the week, but struggle on the weekends. This offers the opportunity to consider what's different about the weekend and how you might adjust the plan accordingly. It's also possible that you discover that Plan B turns out to be the more realistic and doable option for you. There's nothing wrong with this. If you are still moving towards your goal, building habits and getting even small results then that's a win. Progress, even slow progress, is better than staying stuck by trying to achieve perfection. Without a back up plan, missing plan A feels like failure, but if you're ready for it, if you can think, it's ok, I'll move on to Plan B, then you haven't failed, you've succeeded by adjusting. The key is to have a clear, specific backup plan, something simple and doable for those inevitable moments when you miss your routine.
What's habits or routines are you working on right now? Do you have a Plan B for when life happens? How might having a Plan B be helpful for you?