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Advice / Succeeding at Work / Productivity

This Is How You Successfully Maintain New Habits When Life Gets in the Way

You’re all fired up to start a new creative habit, or kick a bad one. You know you need a regular schedule to make it work. But what will you do when life gets in the way?

Without a fall-back option, you can easily be derailed by life’s ups and downs. So, you need a “when-then” plan.

Let’s look at an example: You decide you’re going to put in an extra hour for your creative work every day. You set an alarm an hour earlier, and in the blink of an eye you’re in the studio with a cup of coffee in your hand. You keep up with this for a week, a month, longer. You pat yourself on the back for your ‘streak.’ You share it on social media and your peers shout, “Awesome! Way to go!” You’re on a roll.

But then the dark day dawns:

  • Your kid/dog/partner is sick and keeps you up half the night
  • The boiler breaks down and instead of hitting the studio, you’re ringing round for emergency plumbers
  • Or maybe it’s vacation time and your timetable changes

No problem. You’ll get back to your routine tomorrow or next week, right?

Well, maybe. Or, more likely, maybe not.

A weird thing happens when we break our streak. We feel demoralized. We feel like a failure. No one breaks his or her streak, right?

We’ve read how Stephen King writes daily without fail. Or, how Miquel Barceló makes art every day, even on holiday. Clearly we’re not in their league.

We feel deflated. Tomorrow comes and we don’t go into the studio for that extra hour. We may not go in there at all.

Well, let me share a little coaching secret: The key to those incredible streaks is having a “when-then” plan. It’s accepting that life will—and does—happen. So, you need to know in advance what you’re going to do when you’re hit by situations outside your control.

What a When-Then Plan Looks Like

The when-then plan is a humble affair. It goes something like this:

​When I can’t get into my studio for an extra hour in the morning (or any hour at all), then I’ll spend five minutes checking in with my art in the evening and deciding how I’ll work the next day.”


“​When I can’t do my hour’s writing before work, then I’ll sit in the car at lunch time and free-write for 10 minutes.”

Using the When-Then Plan to Maintain Momentum

“But wait a minute!” I hear you say, “That doesn’t cover the hour I lost.”

You’re right. Your contingency plan won’t replace your original intention, but it will keep you connected to it.

When we check in with our work, even just for five minutes, our “inner critic” backs down and our much more useful “critical faculty” comes into play. Our critical faculty helps us readjust our plan to take account for the time we’ve lost and decide how to go forward. If we have a deadline for our creative work, it helps us plan catch-up sessions or decide what isn’t absolutely critical to do. And if there’s no deadline, our critical faculty will help us analyze how our work is going and where we can best put our energies in the next session.

The When-Then Plan Is a Review Opportunity

Another major bonus of the when-then plan is that it helps you transform those unfortunate interruptions in your streak into productive pauses.

You can use these pauses to assess your direction and make sure you’re on track. Think of them as a chance to tune into your inner voice and make sure everything is as it should be.

The most powerful aspect of the when-then plan is that it leaves you primed to leap into your creative work at the earliest possible opportunity. You’ll hit the ground running without any of those horrible feelings of dejection that normally accompany breaking your streak.

So remember: Your new habits are only good intentions without a when-then plan. Go write down yours.

This article was originally published on Art Cherry Jeffs. It has been republished here with permission.

Photo of person planning courtesy of Westend61/Getty Images.