Self Improvement

How To Make Your Resolutions Stick & Prevent A Relapse

Mihir Patkar 13-01-2015

This is the year. You know it. You can feel it in your bones. The new year is time for change. It’s time to stop smoking/quit drinking/stay off junk food. You make the right adjustments to your bad habits and start new good ones. And then, without warning, you fall back into old ways. Breathe. You can recover from a relapse.


The late G. Alan Marlatt, one of the leading relapse prevention experts, told Time Magazine that falling off the wagon isn’t inherently bad; in fact, it’s almost inevitable in someone who is trying to change problematic behaviour. However, whether you will successfully battle it or not depends on the person’s reaction to this relapse. Still, the most important thing to remember is this:

One mistake doesn’t make a relapse. Continued negative behaviour is a relapse.

Remind Yourself, It’s Not A Lack Of Willpower

All too often, this momentary lapse of reason is taken by the person as a bigger flaw. For instance, after successfully not smoking for 60 days, you might end up having one cigarette. That’s a small misstep. But most quitters see it as an inherent lack of willpower or some such deeply rooted problem within themselves, and quit quitting. That’s the real mistake, not having one cigarette.

The biggest trigger for relapse is negative emotional states. That’s very consistent with the Buddhist concept called “double dukkha.” Dukkha is suffering. You can’t prevent or avoid certain painful experiences, but when you add on the lament, “Oh, there I go again,” you feel even worse. You double the dukkha.

It helps to attune your mindset to a more positive way of looking at things. Instead of focusing on the one relapse, focus on the number of days you successfully kept going. In fact, it’s rare to have just one relapse, so looking at a chart of previous successes can immediately tell you that you have the willpower to do this; once that’s out of the way, it’s just a matter of acknowledging a mistake, learning from it, and getting back to the good habit.


Use apps to chart your progress. It’s similar to Jerry Seinfeld’s “Don’t Break The Chain” productivity method, except you don’t punish yourself for breaking a chain. Android users can try out Days Since (Free), an app that tracks how many days it has been since you last did something. Just seeing a large number next to “Days since last cigarette” can be the motivation you need to start over when you smoke one in a weak moment.


Days Since also tracks the longest, shortest, and average interval time between the recurrence of an event, letting you know just how long you can go and perhaps even telling you that this current relapse isn’t the worst you’ve done. For iOS users, Last Time ($1.99) is a similar app.

Surf Your Urges With Meditation


Marlatt believed in the merits of mindfulness meditation aiding your well-being Meditation Made Easy: Tools & Resources To Aid Your Well-Being If you have come to the conclusion that meditation is a method to calm your mind and achieve well-being worth trying, then we can help you with resources and tools. Read More . In an interview with the Inquiring Mind, he said that just because you are looking to change your behaviour does not mean you won’t feel the urges any more. But you need to realise that urges are like waves — they rise up and go down, and all you have to do is accept this phenomenon and let it pass. Like surfing, just ride with it, but don’t fall into the water.

To counter that, Marlatt developed a technique called S.O.B.E.R:

  • Stop doing what you are
  • Observe what you are feeling, the sensations and urges
  • Breathe and focus on your breath
  • Expand your awareness to realise what would happen if you gave in to the urge
  • Respond mindfully

To practise this, Marlatt recommends meditation exercises, not unlike those you’ll find in the Stop, Breathe & Think app, which is a great start for beginners to meditation Learn Meditation On Any Device & Don't Spend A Dime Contrary to popular opinion, you can meditate without a yoga mat, religious guidance, a peaceful personal space, incense candles, and any other apparatus. Here's a simple tool to help you begin. Read More . In fact, the Mindful Breathing, Be Present, and Cause & Effect exercises in the app seem to do exactly what Marlatt recommends.

Change How You Are Changing


The psychologist’s basic message is to realise your mistakes as one-off incidents; but if they’re repeating, you need to change your approach towards this new habit you are trying to form.

“It’s like trying to ride a bike,” says Marlatt. “You make mistakes and learn, and you don’t give up if you don’t immediately find your balance.” If the bicycle is missing a wheel or is otherwise broken, then it requires fixing — simply willing it to work is not going to help you ride.

For example, if you were used to smoking a cigarette with your morning coffee, you might want to change that trigger and build a better morning routine 3 Simple Ways Tech Can Help Build Your Morning Routine With a little thought and creativity, you can create the perfect start to your day, your way. If you're still working on your morning routine, here's a little inspiration. Read More . Justin is a big believer in winning at life with gamification Points For Everything: How I Tried to Win At Life With Gamification My brain is stupid. It thinks I can get done tomorrow what I need to do today, and that I can do this afternoon what I need to do this morning. It puts everything off.... Read More , and has written extensively about how the app HabitRPG helped him form better habits by turning the process into a game.


How Have You Dealt With A Relapse?

We want to hear your success stories and your failure stories. Have you tried forming a good habit and failed? I know I have. Is there a successful resolution you can share? Let’s talk in the comments and learn from each other.

Image Credit: ilco

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