Breaking Out of the Lapse-Response Cycle

The lapse-response cycle has come up before, but it's a significant enough force in our effort to build good habits that it's worth examining in more detail.

What Is It?

In short, the cycle is the process of sticking to a habit so consistently that you think you can take a break without losing the benefits of all that work. One break turns into two, two into a week or a month, and the next thing you know you're back where you started.

I first discovered this cycle when I was about 14 years old and trying to improve my acne. I had that ProActiv stuff you see on TV all the time, and it seemed to work pretty well when I used it as directed, twice a day. When I first got it, I stuck to it perfectly for a week or two and saw some real improvements in my complexion. So I patted myself on the back, told myself it was easy to remember to do it every morning and evening, and went and skipped a day. As my acne had improved, the relative importance of ProActiv had diminished to the point that I valued five more minutes of sleep more. My building of the habit lapsed.

Then I saw equally dramatic changes, and only in a couple days. Big pimples returned. I responded by returning to the regimen. It got better. I lapsed. It got worse. I responded. It got better. This happened for years. I knew it was happening, but it was still too hard to say, "Using ProActiv is more important than sleep" twice a day every day when my face was looking relatively good.

This was just an example. It happens with everything.

"My weight has dropped below 190. Finally I can have a piece of cake without hating myself for it."

"I've been going to bed by 10PM all week. Finally I can stay up late hanging out with my friends."

"I saved several thousand dollars this year. Finally I can go buy that fancy tablet."

Next thing you know, you're fat, tired, and broke again. So you get back into gear and start over. But you never realize the gains that it takes years to accrue. You get by, but you don't get ripped, you stay tired all the time, and you never become rich.

How to End It

There are a couple mindsets that lead to the lapse-response cycle. One is the mindset that there's some point at which you've made all the progress you need to make. This doesn't make sense when you see it written down, but for some reason it makes sense when you're thinking it. "I've been so good at flossing every day this last week that I don't have to do it tonight." And you keep not flossing your teeth until your dentist tells you your gums are receding and you've got more cavities than teeth.

Stop thinking about the progress you've made. No amount of progress is enough when it comes to flossing, so there's no point in thinking about it. Just floss. The same goes for exercising, sleeping regularly, and saving money for retirement. You have to do it. So just do it.

The other roadblock is arrogance. The response actually comes from a need to prove to ourselves that we don't suck, so once we stop sucking we also stop performing the habit. Your sense of self-worth should not be so tied to these little things, though. You are a great person. You're alive, people love you, you're good at plenty of things. It is for your health, not your self-esteem, that you need to floss.

At the same time, be humble about the habit. If you've been doing it for a few weeks, you haven't mastered it. You have a long way to go. Keep at it. You will only have mastered it when you're no longer subject to lapsing every few weeks or months.

Process orientation and humility. It's amazing how often our successes in life come back to those two things.


Update on the tendonitis. I think it was just DOMS, but I'm not sure.