Setting Firm Limits: Always and Never to Make Changes in Life

By Ali Luke

Are you struggling to make changes in your life?

Perhaps you always start off with good intentions – but slowly, old habits creep back in.

You promise yourself that this week, you’re going to eat healthily – and you do fine on Monday. But on Tuesday, your boss buys donuts for the office, and then on Wednesday, it’s a friend’s birthday party and you just can’t resist that chocolate cake…

If your attempts at change seem to get constantly derailed, then you might want to consider setting some clear, non-negotiable rules.

Setting Firm Limits: Always and Never

Sometimes, it makes good sense to have a very clear limit on what you will (or won’t) do. For instance, your change might look like one of these:

  • Always meditate for 10 minutes before breakfast
  • Always eat at least five portions of fruit & veg a day
  • Never drink alcohol
  • Never smoke

As Oliver Burkeman puts it in This column will change your life: just say no:

For many people, it’s just easier to do things 100% than 98%. That’s the approach of Alcoholics Anonymous: once you’ve decided to stop drinking completely – or never bring work home, or go for a daily run […] – you needn’t waste time or energy weighing the merits of each potential exception, because there aren’t any.

Of course, you need to make firm rules that will actually work. “Eat healthily every day” probably won’t – it’s too vague. “Only eat dessert at the weekend” or “Have a salad every day at lunch” is a much clearer rule to stick to.

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When Firm Limits Trip You Up

While these rules work for some people, and for some situations, they’re not always the best idea.

If you’re someone who tends to lapse into all-or-nothing thinking, then you might find that one small slip throws you totally off-track.

For instance, if you tell yourself you’ll never smoke another cigarette and then you have one at a party, you might give up on quitting smoking altogether. If you say you’ll only snack on fruit, and then end up raiding the office cookie jar, you might ditch that diet completely.

You may find that it helps to set a small “must-do” target (then anything extra is a bonus). For instance, if you never manage to stick to your five-a-day for more than a week at a time, you might aim to have at least three portions of fruit and veg every day instead. If you can manage more on a particular day, great; even if you only hit three, you’ll still feel good about reaching your target.

Don’t be over-ambitious in the goals and limits that you set for yourself. It’s much better to make steady, consistent progress towards one goal than to throw yourself headlong towards five – only to end up quitting them all.

Your Turn: What Will You Always or Never Do?

If you’re struggling with a particular change right now, what firm limit could you set?

It might look like one of these:

  • Always get out of bed before 8.00am on week-days
  • Always eat a piece of fruit with my breakfast
  • Never open my inbox before 10.00am
  • Never drink alcohol on week-nights

Try coming up with a rule today (even just a small one) and stick to it all week. See whether it makes a difference to how much progress you make towards your goal.

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