What To Do When You Get Off Track

Habit change is a funny thing. Funny because there’s the way we think it’s going to go (the way we tell ourselves it’s “supposed” to go) and then there’s the way it actually goes.

If you’re like me, you probably assume that when you’re being “good” and when you have “enough willpower” or whatever the fuck, habit change goes like this:

Decide to make a change —> Make the change —> Stay consistent with the change —> Feel great —> Never have a problem ever again

Seriously, you guys, that’s the way I used to think habit change worked – even though EVERY SINGLE real life example I had ever personally experienced was more like this:

Decide to make a change —> Talk myself out of the change because I was afraid it would be too hard —> Decide to make the change again —> Attempt the change for a few days or weeks —> Feel inspired and pumped up —> Keep going —> Get bored —> Hit a mental/emotional/circumstantial road block —> Let the new behaviors slip —> Get angry with myself —> Feel like a failure —> Go back to my old habits and behaviors out of comfort and convenience —> Use this situation as “proof” that I’m incapable of change —> Repeat

Which is why, honestly, it was such a huge deal when I was able to quit drinking. That behavioral change was the exception to everything else I had ever tried to change, and it gave me hope that other changes were possible. It started the momentum snowball, which carried me off the couch and into a pair of running shoes, which then carried me into massive dietary changes. And through all of that, I’ve learned a lot about habit change. I’ve learned, for example, that the ebb and flow of making real changes in real life (changes that actually stick, even when things get tough) looks like this:

Decide to make a change —> Identify what, specifically, you want to change —> Identify why you want to change (is this goal truly a good fit for you, or is it just something you think you “should” do?) —> Start changing by doing one tiny thing at a time —> Be patient —> Get frustrated that things aren’t magically different overnight —> Sit with the discomfort, and keep doing one tiny thing at a time —> Commit, every single day —> Make this change a real priority —> Notice when the once “impossible” things start to feel effortless —> Value your commitment more than your progress —> Make more change —> Get into a good rhythm with the new habit that suddenly isn’t so new anymore —> Keep going, without needing as much thought or effort —> Realize one day that you’re not being quite as diligent as you once were, but shrug it off —> Notice when “not quite as diligent” has morphed into “totally off track” —> Get upset with yourself for letting this happen (shouldn’t you be passed this point by now?!) —> Breath, regroup, and get back to it

And it’s in exactly this way that habit change can be really difficult, because even when you’ve been doing something consistently over a long period of time, you can all of the sudden find yourself completely off track and out of alignment with where you truly want to be.

For example:

The other day, I realized how much gluten I’ve been eating lately. (Spoiler alert: I’m not saying gluten is “bad” and I’m not saying you need to stop eating it – this story is about what makes me feel my best, and is not to be mistaken for any kind of judgement about anyone else’s choices. Cool?) So, here’s the deal with gluten:

Last November, I stopped eating gluten for five weeks. It was a suggestion I picked up from The Ultramind Solution, by Mark Hyman, a book about how to fix our broken brains (in my case: mood disorder) through dietary and lifestyle changes in addition to (or instead of) medication or other standard remedies. I found the book fascinating, especially the parts linking the inflammatory nature of gluten with depression and other brain-related ailments, so I was eager to experiment with how it would feel to cut gluten out of my own diet for a bit.

I was very strict about it for five weeks (because really, the only way to know if something works for you is to be deliberate, intentional, and consistent with it over a specified period of time), and I noticed a definite increase in my mood stability. Not as intense as when I cut out processed sugar (that was huge for improving my mood/energy stability), but noticeable nonetheless. “Great,” I thought. “This works! So now I’ll just stop eating gluten and that will be that – easy.”


So, predictably, I stuck with it for a few more months. Then, I got curious about how it would feel to add a little gluten back in (would I feel the negative effects right away?) and I played around with that, intentionally, for another few months. I noticed that I felt better when I wasn’t eating gluten, but that I didn’t feel terrible when I did eat it, so it became easier and easier to let it slip back into my life. Why? Because gluten is easy, and I got lazy. Toast is easy. Sandwiches are easy. Deciding not to comb through every detail of a food label is easy. And so quietly, little by little, I let the gluten back into my life.

That’s how it happens, by the way. It’s not like one evening we just think, “You know what? Fuck it. I’m 100% done with this habit/lifestyle change.” It doesn’t happen like that. It happens slowly, where we decide that one piece of toast is fine and then one piece of toast every two days is fine and then toast every afternoon is fine and then oooh, English muffins, those are delicious! And since we’ve been eating all that toast, what difference does one little English muffin make? But then it’s not just one English muffin, it’s one per day, and on and on…

So, here I am, realizing how I’ve let gluten back into my life, and also realizing that my moods have not been very stable lately. There are other factors at play, of course (seasonal changes, a severe reduction in running due to injury, etc) but I know that I feel better when I don’t eat gluten and in the past few months I have been neglecting that truth – simply because it’s easier.

So, okay, I’ve now reached the point we all reach during the cycle of habit change, the point where we consciously realize that we’re off track and out of alignment from where we want to be. (Notice that I didn’t say “off the wagon” or anything dramatic like that, because I really don’t like the idea that we’re either “on” a program or “off” a program – it’s too black and white, too perfectionist-ey, and too likely to lead to thoughts like, “Well, I already had one cookie and messed everything up so I might as well have 12 cookies and then just ‘start over’ again tomorrow.”)

Because there’s no such thing as starting over. There’s only changing direction from where you are right now, and continuing on from there.

And that’s the key: changing direction. If you’re doing something that you don’t want to be doing, you simply need to change direction. You don’t need a big plan of what to do every day for the next six years, you just need to do one thing to change direction. Think about it this way: Let’s say you’re driving a car down a long road, and you’re traveling south. You’ve been traveling south for quite a while, when suddenly you realize that you’re going the wrong way. You never meant to go south – you need to go north! You just accidentally stopped paying attention for a while, and wound up driving in the wrong direction. So, okay, just because you’ve had that realization doesn’t mean that poof, you’ll automatically be going full speed in the correct direction. No, first you need to slow down, find a safe way to turn around, slowly begin driving north, and then let your speed build back up gradually from there. Habit change is the same.

There I was, eating lots of gluten (traveling “south” so to speak) and now that I’ve realized I’d like to stop eating gluten again (go “north”) the first thing I need to do is slow the momentum I’ve built up in that direction by doing one small thing differently. By doing that, I’ll begin the process of consciously turning the car around, which will then allow me to building momentum in the other direction through the compounding effect of one north-bound decision after another. Because, seriously, it’s the cumulative effect of your actions that create impact. Eating one piece of toast when you haven’t been eating gluten for three months wouldn’t equate to all of the sudden speeding down the road heading south, just like not eating toast for one day if you’ve been eating it all your life won’t all of the sudden mean you’re barreling northward; it doesn’t work like that. One thing doesn’t change everything, but lasting change must begin with that one thing because it’s that one thing that starts to turn the momentum in the other direction.

So on Monday, I didn’t eat gluten (slowing the car). Then, yesterday, I didn’t eat gluten (slowing down some more). So far today, I haven’t eaten gluten, and I’m starting to feel the momentum shifting in the direction I’d like to go. I’ve turned the car around, I’m keeping my eyes forward, and now I’m very slowly heading north, one day at a time. And that’s another thing, actually: try to only look in the direction you’d like to go. If I want to be driving north, it’s not very safe to be turned around in the driver’s seat, staring south and beating myself up over how many miles I traveled in the wrong direction – that’s a recipe for a car crash.

So just keep your eyes forward, focus on where you want to go, and then keep going – one step, one mile, one decision at a time.

{ 26 comments… read them below or add one }

Natanya August 27, 2014 at 9:52 am

mmm…love the metaphor. Easy to turn to when I realize I may be headed in the wrong direction. Thanks!


Rebecca Healy August 27, 2014 at 9:57 am

Have you read The Slight Edge? The north/south metaphor reminds me of the slight edge principle. Jess Lively of The Lively Show recommended it, and I’m almost finished. Pretty good and her podcast is really great so there are two things folks should check out :)


nicole antoinette August 27, 2014 at 10:05 am

Oh, awesome! I’ve never heard of it, but I’m always in the market for a great book. Thanks, Rebecca!


Jess Lively August 29, 2014 at 10:19 am

Thanks for sharing the podcast and book, Rebecca!! I hope you have a great weekend!


Karen August 27, 2014 at 9:58 am

You are so funny! Love your blog. Your “what actually happens” is mine too! I just started to try to wake up earlier (at a crisp 5am) and I’m taking small steps and not being too hard on myself. It’s working so far! Glad to see I’m not the only one who beats myself up when I feel like I “fail”


nicole antoinette August 27, 2014 at 10:06 am

Good for you, Karen! I made this shift a few years ago as well, and the thing that helped me the most was to focus not on my wake-up time, but on my nighttime schedule/bed time/sleep hygiene. I’d go to bed 15 min earlier every few days, and that started to naturally shift my sleep cycle where I wanted it to be. If you need anything while you’re transitioning, let me know!


Susan August 27, 2014 at 10:08 am

I have noticed over the past few months that my wine consumption is out of control. I was wondering how long it took you to not crave it anymore?


Eko August 27, 2014 at 10:35 am

Thanks very much for this post Nicole! Awesome metaphor and very timely as I’m on day 2 of trying to turn my big old clunky Norco around (for those of us who don’t drive cars). The hard thing about metaphorically biking in the wrong direction is that it was all my own effort that got me in the wrong direction and I have been feeling pretty frustrated about that so really appreciated your ass-kicking to get off the pity train, apply the brakes, and start heading in the other direction.

It is pretty amazing how much we want there to be a resting place where it’s all figured out and life is easy, eh? Even though there is zero evidence that that place exists, and plenty of evidence that it doesn’t! Silly humans! :)


Sue Brighton August 27, 2014 at 11:04 am

Going to use
Value your commitment more than your progress
When I weaken.



Liz August 27, 2014 at 11:07 am

This is perfect! I’ve been trying to change my eating habits as of late. I think I’m stuck in a heading south – slow down – U-turn – heading north – slow down – U turn – heading south loop. :) It plays merry hell with your internal fuel efficiency too!


Dallas August 27, 2014 at 1:28 pm

Nicole, I absolutely LOVE this. The analogy at the end with driving the car is SO apt — I will be thinking of that image whenever I feel like I get “off track” in an area of my life and want to “turn the car around” so to speak. Sending you good thoughts re: going off gluten. You’re amazing and I always look forward to your posts. xo


Lindsay Knake August 27, 2014 at 1:44 pm

I did the same as you, but with dairy. A year and a half ago, I stopped with milk. Although I think drinking another animal’s milk is disgusting, it’s delicious and I can’t help that. Getting rid of dairy significantly helped with my exercise-induced asthma, which is why I did it. I would have ice cream or a latte once in a while as a treat (and chocolate milk after a marathon), but quit with milk and yogurt beyond that.
But earlier this year as I was going through a rough patch, I bought a pint of ice cream. That eventually turn into eating ice cream a few times a week, and then buying milk for homemade pumpkin spice chai tea lattes.
And today, I can feel the rattle of mucus and inflammation in my chest from dairy products. I HATE that feeling. That’s it. That’s enough. I’m getting back on track.


Amy August 27, 2014 at 3:16 pm

I love, love, love that your look at the healthy steps to habit change include considering whether the goal is even right. I went through a year and a half of repeated goal-setting for running because everyone I knew was doing it. I kept getting way off track, because, you know what? I fucking hate running. But, I can power-walk like a sumbritch, and I love how it gets my muscles all warm and loose and ready to come home for some yoga. So, changing my goal (I only run up hills, and only so I can get back to the flat faster) was this epic moment for me and my stop watch.

Great thoughts, as always! Have a safe trip driving back up north.


Pj August 27, 2014 at 3:55 pm

I am slowly easing into the eating healthier concept and working out in the morning. Its not easy but your running book did help and I am working on writing out my big sexy goals. This time I feel much better about how I am going to achieve things and your blog and writings have helped tremendously with this. thank you. I love they way you write because that is how I think half the time very direct and to the point. Thanks again for everything.


Christine Sandvik August 27, 2014 at 5:05 pm

Thank you for this – I love it! This is exactly what I needed to hear and when I needed to hear it. I was slipping a little, then got off track, then wanted to beat myself up over it… but now I’m slowly turning the car and heading north and feeling good about it. And reading this only adds to my motivation. Looking forward to continued momentum and valuing the commitment!


Carrie Rose August 27, 2014 at 5:05 pm

I SUPER NEEDED TO READ THIS. I did this exact thing. I went through your sugar detox and felt AHHHH-MAZING and after the program ended I was all, “What does it feel like to eat sugar, after all?” It didn’t make me feel like shit. just like for you with gluten: “…but that I didn’t feel terrible when I did eat it, so it became easier and easier to let it slip back into my life.” So here I am drinking sugar and eating sugar and overall not where I want to be. So I am making a change right this moment. I didn’t bring my water bottle to work tonight so instead of buying a pop from the vending machine, I will buy a bottle of water. One step, right? :)


Carrie Rose August 27, 2014 at 5:13 pm

I bought one bottle of water and two came out… must be a sign!!


Danielle August 27, 2014 at 5:39 pm

I loved the UltraMind Solution. I also stopped eating gluten and it’s been almost a year. I’ve had it once during this year off of it and fortunately, I got hives and felt horrible so I haven’t had it again. Because I know that if I didn’t feel that way then I would let it back into my life, like I have with sugar.

This was an awesome post! xo


Jo-Anne August 27, 2014 at 6:04 pm

When I get off track I like to stop and think and find my way back on track not always easy to do but I do like to try


Mindy August 27, 2014 at 6:26 pm

You are simply awesome Nicole!
I relate so much to your ideas and values.
I love reading your blog!!!


Jennifer August 28, 2014 at 6:23 am

How is it that you KNOW exactly what we’re all thinking, & can communicate it so well? Thank you! This is exactly what I needed to hear today.


Kerry @ Snark & Pepper August 28, 2014 at 6:36 am

Yesss to identifying whether or not a goal makes sense to even have. There are so many health-related goals I’d make because I thought they were what I SHOULD do, not necessarily anything that was best for me or was attainable. Obviously these things never panned out. :)

“Because there’s no such thing as starting over. There’s only changing direction from where you are right now, and continuing on from there.”

This is such a better way of thinking of getting back on track.


Sharron August 28, 2014 at 2:24 pm

Ha, I loved the actual description of what change feels like, bang on the money and honest as ever. Do we ever stop beating ourselves up? It’s so obvious but so hard sometimes to put the brakes on, and turn around, but it definitely is possible.

I’m just starting the reverse out of a dip in my healthy eating regime.To use your driving analogy, I have turned it around, but have pulled into the hard shoulder for a rethink!

Complacency is my Achilles heel. Kidding myself that I don;t need to use my food app to log everything because I have cracked it – NEWSFLASH, if it works why stop doing it???!!

Off topic, but which post did you share around what to eat on long runs? Its 3 weeks to my 26 mile walk challenge, and I am struggling what I should carry snacks wise – as always I’d appreciate your insight



vani August 29, 2014 at 5:50 pm

Amazing example. Very inspiring as its been more than a month I am just “thinking” to change a habit of mine and now I think with this article of yours I am enlighten and know in which direction I need and go and how to go.
Superb Nicole. Keep sharing. :) :)


Cinsley September 2, 2014 at 5:03 pm

This was just what I needed to read. Over the weekend I fell off my “no (diet) soda” wagon. I had it not once, but a few times at different events. Was feeling gross and beating myself up over it when I clicked on the link in your email I’d saved from last week. Great read and I love the analogy, as it makes a tremendous amount of sense. Thanks for always being on-point.


Cynthia September 8, 2014 at 10:44 am

Love the “off the wagon” analogy – and I’m so the person who thinks, well I messed up once, might as well ruin the whole day! I have to be gluten-free, thanks to Hashimoto’s disease, and I’ve eliminated nightshades as well. On top of that, I’m low carbing like crazy (about 50 more pounds to go.) The gym, let’s not forget that! Thanks for your no-bs look at life.


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