By Leo Babauta

One of the most common mistakes people make when trying to change their eating habits is to collapse after messing up.

You go to a party and tell yourself you’re going to be good, and eat healthy food … and then you have a few chips. Oh no! The plan failed! So now you feel bad, and give up … why not have a beer? And then two? And while you’re at it, some more chips and a bunch of cake.

The first failure — eating a few chips — wasn’t that bad, and in fact a healthy lifestyle can include eating chips in moderation. The problem wasn’t the chips or the failure, it’s the response to the failure. We feel like we failed, and then we give up. We say, “Oh well, I already messed up, so messing up some more won’t make a difference.”

That’s not true, though. Messing up a little is totally fine. But a complete collapse, followed by a few days of eating with abandon … that’s not as good. And it sets up a pattern that will be repeated fairly often.

So what can we do instead? Take a more flexible approach.

A Flexible Approach

The mindset when we’re changing our eating habits should not be: “I’m going to do this perfectly. Things are going to go according to plan.” That’s a rigid approach that expects perfection, and is not realistic.

Instead, a more flexible mindset is useful: “I’m going to try to follow this plan, but I don’t know exactly how it will go, and I’m going to learn along the way. I expect bumps in the road, and will learn from them.” This is a learning mindset, an open approach, and one that allows for flexibility.

So here’s how it might work:

  1. Pick something super easy. Too many people try to do too much when they’re changing their eating habits, and this put a huge burden on them to be perfect with the habit change. Not realistic. Instead, try something very easy that you know you can stick to. Let yourself succeed, and let yourself adjust to this as your new “normal”.
  2. Know that there will be bumps. Don’t go in hoping to be perfect — know that there will be unexpected missteps, obstacles you didn’t anticipate, urges that you just won’t overcome for some reason. This is a more realistic approach, and if you anticipate things going differently than you planned, you aren’t as likely to just give up when that happens.
  3. Be mindful, & when there’s a bump, learn from it. It’s helpful to be mindful as you eat, and especially when you approach challenging situations like a bunch of unhealthy food at a work function or a holiday party. Watch yourself as you enter this environment, and see what urges and rationalizations come up. See what happens when you eat something that you didn’t plan to eat. Breathe, and then learn from the rationalizations and obstacles you encounter. Learn from the missteps. Write this stuff down.
  4. Make adjustments. Change your habit plan to accommodate these obstacles and rationalizations. What will you try differently next time? Also, if you didn’t do so well this past week with your eating change, adjust and make it easier. Or try a different eating change that won’t be as challenging, and come back to this harder one later.

This is the flexible process that leads to long-term change. It’s not easy, but the inflexible approach isn’t easy either, because it leads to a pattern where you fail and give up, repeatedly over time. Choose flexible instead.

Going Beyond This Challenge

Now that we’re wrapping up this challenge, where do you go next? The keys to continual improvement will be:

  1. To set intentions to continue to make small changes.
  2. To stay flexible and adjust as you go.
  3. To have a regular review — maybe a monthly review to your team, or even more often, where you can see how your intentions have gone and adjust.

Small changes, for the rest of the year. Gradual change that will stick for life. Flexible so that you don’t collapse when things don’t go “perfectly.” You can do this.