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May 24, 2010

Why You Can’t Make That Habit Stick (Part Two)

Last week we started talking about why habits are hard to change, and focused on how much we really prefer the payoffs of out bad habits (a painful truth, but the truth nonetheless).  If you haven’t read the post yet, go back and read it first so you can understand how “doing the math” is your ticket out.

Today we’re going to talk about another reason you have so much trouble breaking bad habits and establishing better ones, and it’s an equally painful truth.  But once you understand it, you can move past it.  Let’s dive in.

Painful Truth #2: If you think “good intentions” are enough to create change, you’re sunk.

A lot of times when we try to break a habit we say to ourselves, “I’m really going to do it this time,” only to find ourselves faltering far too soon.  Maybe we have a few good days and then get off track, never to return.  Or maybe we never get on track in the first place, and we’re stuck in “I’ll get to it soon” mode.

Either way, no long-term results.  We feel the sting of failure and decide there’s something terribly wrong with us.

But I’m willing to bet that most of the time the problem isn’t “us” – it’s the fact we’re using wishful thinking instead of a real strategy to overcome the habit.

This is something that we tend to do very easily – we get excited about doing something new and we convince ourselves that our excitement and enthusiasm will be enough to carry the day.  And it may carry us, but only for a very short time.  Then our good intentions get overridden by the sticking power of our long-established habits.

How To Make Yourself 50 Times More Likely To Follow Through

While I’m all for getting yourself excited to make a change (without falling into the positive thinking trap or depending upon the “Law” of Attraction), there’s a critical step you have to take after the infatuation-with-change phase.

And that step is called Making A Plan.  An actual plan for how you are going to make this habit change – one that has enough detail to actually get you there.

“I’ll start eating better and going to the gym” is not a plan.  It’s wishful thinking, because it doesn’t allow you to schedule things in and handle the resistance to change you’ll be feeling when you try to rewrite your patterns of behavior.

A plan looks more like this:

  • I’m scheduling in going to the gym at lunch on Tuesdays and Thursdays, and even if I don’t feel like working out, I’m going to show up anyway just to establish the habit.
  • I’m hiring a nutritionist to help me create a meal plan that I can live with and actually follow, and I’m going to check in with her once a week.
  • I’m hiring a personal trainer to create a workout plan that will help me reach my goals.  (And if you’re tight on cash, drop by, get a free plan, and get a buddy to keep you accountable).
  • I’m going to write down all the reasons I want to make this change – and everything it will cost me if I don’t make the change – and I’m going to review it at breakfast every day of the week.
  • I’m going to write down every single thing I eat during the day for the next 30 days to keep me accountable for making good decisions – and I’ll show it to my nutritionist weekly.
  • I’m going to forgive myself if I get off track and review my reasons again so I can get back on track.

So … what do you think’s more likely to create a real habit change?  “Hoping?” or planning and scheduling?

Goals Aren’t Real Until They’re Scheduled In And Planned

No, I’m the farthest thing in the world from a rigid, regimented person.  I’m not going to tell you there’s one right way to keep track of your goals, or do your schedule, or manage your workday.

But I will tell you this:  If you don’t have a way to manage it, it’s not going to happen on it’s own.  And I can guarantee you that daily urgencies will distract you and create a tension strong enough to make you unwilling to use your mental energy to reinforce habit changes.  Instead, you’ll fall into comfortable patterns because you’ll crave some comfort in the midst of your stress.

To change a habit, you need a plan.  And it doesn’t have to be a perfect plan.  It just has to be something to get you started and get it in the calendar.

For example, a beginner plan for losing weight could look like this:

  • I’m scheduling in going to the gym at lunch on Tuesdays and Thursdays, and even if I don’t feel like working out, I’m going to show up anyway just to establish the habit.
  • On Wednesday at lunch I’ll spend 30 minutes figuring out how to add to / improve my plan.

That’s all you need to do.  Have a plan (or the beginnings of one) in place.  Don’t focus on what you want without figuring out what you’re actually going to do in order to accomplish it.

Wishful thinking doesn’t get you anywhere.  Planning and working the plan does.

Now Here’s The Part Where I Tell You To Do Stuff

Here’s what I want you to do right now while this is all fresh on your mind:

  1. Think of one habit change that’s been in “wishful thinking” mode and decide you’re going to move into “making it real” mode.
  2. Schedule 30 minutes sometime in the next 7 days to start creating your basic, just-get-started plan of attack.
  3. Leave a comment and tell us what you’re doing and when your planning time is  scheduled. Leaving a comment will make you accountable for getting honest and the process will be a relief.  If you don’t want to put your real name, just put “Ass Kicker” in the name field.
  4. Click the Twitter link below and spread the word about this article.

Get honest.

Empower yourself.

That is all,


26 Responses to “Why You Can’t Make That Habit Stick (Part Two)”

  • May 24, 2010 James Chartrand - Men with Pens

    Yup. It’s only a great idea until it becomes measurable.

    And that’s the key: being able to measure your actions and successes. A lot of your examples had numbers in them: 5 times a week, 30 minutes a day, once a month.

    THAT is specific. That is measurable. That is a near-tangible goal that you can accomplish as a milestone. It’s small and it’s manageable.

    “I’ll clear up my to-do list!” sucks. “I’ll complete three tasks from my to-do list every day – without adding more – until it’s empty.” That’s much more accomplishable.
    James Chartrand – Men with Pens´s last blog ..How NOT to Get the Freelance Job – and What to Do My ComLuv Profile

  • May 24, 2010 Aprille Ross

    This is telling me stuff that I already knew, but it helps soooo much to see it in print! There are so many times that my husband and I discuss ways to promote our furniture and log cabin accessories, but we don’t actually write it down. I’m going to take a notebook out to the shop and nail it to the workbench, this will be one way to put it in our line of sight. Thank you for the kick in the ass, Dave!

  • May 24, 2010 Merlene

    A while back I read that “a goal is a dream with a deadline”. Not sure where I read it, might have been here on, but it’s something that changed my entire approach to making things happen.

    Someday, tomorrow, soon … none of these days ever come. Actionable goals with specific timelines and start dates are key.

    Thank you so much for the reminder, Dave. I’d been sliding back into the “one of these days” mentality the last few months. Treading water instead of reaching the other side of the pond. Your Monday kick in the ass reminds me to start being specific and (actionable) goal oriented again instead of vague and dreamy.
    Merlene´s last blog ..Friday Night Madtini – The Hold Up My ComLuv Profile

  • May 24, 2010 Amy Harrison

    I know it’s a bit of a cop-out but I’ve been trying to get fit again all year.

    It wouldn’t stick at all, so I signed myself up for a half-marathon. The fear of not being able to complete it and a regimented training schedule should work this time!
    Amy Harrison´s last blog ..Are You Turning Away Customers With Stuffy or Stroppy Web Copy? My ComLuv Profile

  • May 24, 2010 Dave Williams

    “without falling into the positive thinking trap or depending upon the “Law” of Attraction), there’s a critical step you have to take after the infatuation-with-change phase.”

    Amen to that! It’s a great motivator but the taking action message so often gets lost.

    I have found over the years the best plans are ones that I write down, and fit one one page or power card a can keep on me or display prominently.

    Dave Williams´s last blog ..Dave Williams Bucket List (not to be confused with Cael) My ComLuv Profile

  • May 24, 2010 Nick

    Two things to add to the above comments…

    1. Make your goals public. From the book “59 Seconds” they discovered the most likely method to achieve goals was to go public with them. So tell your FB friends etc what your plan is.

    2. I’ve discovered “Goals On Track” software that throws reminders into your inbox each day…user friendly, great stuff. (and no, I have no connection to the company in any way shape or form)

  • May 24, 2010 jennifer

    One more thing to add:

    Your priorities are your actions, not what you say or write down. So you can sit down and create a plan every day for the rest of your life if you want to, but if you don’t make that goal/habit change a priority in your life, it will never happen.
    jennifer´s last blog ..An Effective Method for Turning Off Your Inner Editor My ComLuv Profile

  • May 24, 2010 Andy

    This post is right up my alley as I embark on a journey to “healthyness”. I used to say fitness but that can be disregarded. I am pretty fit so that is OK.
    Being healthy is another matter. Am I eating the foods that will fuel my body and mind or am I poisoning myself. There is really nothing in between.
    An eating plan, and exercise plan, is essential to success whether you want to lose weight, control blood sugar, or deal with any other medical problems.
    Your words helped me to internalized that fact.

  • May 24, 2010 June

    Thanks, Dave! Oddly, I was just talking to someone else about the importance of making plans this morning.

    I felt inspired, so I made my plan right away.

    Here is my Plan for Becoming Reliable and Productive:

    1. I will be consistently on time to work. This means I must leave the house by 8:50. I should shoot to be done getting ready by 8:45.

    2. To make this happen, I will get ready for work before I do anything else in the morning.

    3. I am not allowed to check personal email or do anything non-work-related until I’ve done at least 1 hour of good, solid work.

    4. I will start my day by planning what I am going to get done that day and splitting it into manageable chunks.

    5. After I complete each chunk, I can take a 10-minute break and check email or whatever.

    6. After every half hour of solid work, I can take a 5-minute break.

    7. I will make sure I work at least 8 hs. plus my lunch break.

    8. When I think of something I want/need to take care of that doesn’t relate to work, I will put it on a list and do it on my breaks.

    9. I will set alarms for deadlines and appointments, even if I think I will remember. I will set an alarm in advance and for when I actually have to leave.

  • May 24, 2010 Megan

    I’ll walk 2000 steps @ lunchtime 4 days this week.

  • May 24, 2010 Kate

    I have to say, Dave, I *LOVE* your blogs! I have been going through quite a few personal issues since the beginning of the year, and your blogs have helped me quite a bit along the way. I love your no-nonsense, realistic viewpoints and suggestions. Just wanted to throw that out there – that you can add me to your list of loyal followers! :)

    As for this particular blog, the bad habit I’m going to change is my negative attitude. I tend to get over-stressed about things that I don’t need to stress about, and put a lot of emphasis on the negative aspects of things, rather than appreciating the good stuff. So…

    I am going to make it a point to give at least one compliment to at least one person every day. Giving compliments makes everyone feel good.

    I’m going to compliment myself every day (because really, we need to include ourselves in the list of people to make feel good).

    And I’m going to hug and kiss my kids (and any other friends willing to allow me) every single day. I already hug and kiss my kids, which ALWAYS makes me feel good, but I’m going to make it a point to be truly passionate about my hugs and kisses. Because, really, who doesn’t like a nice, heart-felt hug now and then? :)

    Thanks for another great kick!

  • May 24, 2010 Ass Kicker

    Thanks, Dave – your post has come at a great time. Summer is just around the corner (again) & I’m still overweight! I really need to get a grip on my eating & schedule in exercise that is realistic & acheiveable. I seem to be good at writing & sticking to plans for my work goals, but am a big failure when it comes to personal stuff. Yet you make is sound so easy!

    So at 12 noon Wednesday 26 May, I will sit down & start on my plan to lose weight – it’s already written my diary in capitals!

  • May 24, 2010 Carl

    My greatest enemy is boredom – you’re dead right about the excited dream bit – I’ve found quite often I know exactly what the steps are to achieve the goal (ie I need to lose weight and I have a system to hand I know works – Slimmers World – but the way I do the plan is boring.

    I go to the gym and same problem – I’ve got lots of ‘bright ideas’ I want to spend time on and the gym looks like a distraction from those – but I’ve got to put the bright shiny stuff to one side for the long term plan.

    The systematic doing is downright boring after a while but it’s the only way.
    Carl´s last blog ..Emotional Disorders and Fictional Stories – Four Viewpoints Travelled My ComLuv Profile

  • May 24, 2010 John Kizer

    Have you read about neurolinguistic programming processes (NLP) for changing habits and other states of mind? It works with “parts” of the mind. Example – you drive home, thinking about what you’ll do later. But you still stop for red lights, stay in your lane, etc. You have a part that does that (a habit?) while you’re thinking about evening acitivities. Parts that direct undesirable actions (habits)can be easily and quickly changed.

  • May 24, 2010 John Kizer

    PS. Even with the NLP advantage one still needs to follow a plan so as to replace one habit with another.

  • May 25, 2010 wbailey

    First let me say this is a very good article for those who haven’t yet put plans to paper. However I’d like to add a caveat. I LOVE planning…and making lists…and prioritizing goals…and defining next actions…and putting it on my calendar…and telling my friends and family…………. and find that absolutely none of that matters one bit when the time comes to actually physically DO it.

    At a certain point, you know the drill. Eat responsibly. Exercise several times a week for at least 20-30 min. Do the things you need to do. It’s not rocket science.

    So what works for me better now is to keep track of what I’ve DONE: daily weigh-in, whether I exercised, whether I ate responsibly, whether I practiced my flute, what I did at work, etc. I can b.s. myself about what I might do, but I can’t b.s. about what I actually did. It makes every day a choice–will I look back on today and be proud of the choices I made, or not?

    And when I actually stick to it, it works great! :)

  • May 25, 2010 Cindy

    This is great. I am going to start tonight.

  • May 26, 2010 Claire

    At noon on Sat, May 29, I will plan out my ‘40 Day Challenge’. Something I have been thinking about for ages but will now make happen.

    Thanks for the ass kicking. Helps to have a voice stating clear, concise and guilt-free ways to actually get somewhere in reality instead of living longer in the la-la-land of wishful thinking and good intentions.

    Off we go!

  • May 26, 2010 Laurie

    I think one possibly crucial tidbit you should add to this is that it is important to find healthy, satisfying alternate ways to meet the underlying need that is driving the destructive habit, and to recognize that just because a habit is destructive doesn’t mean the need underneath it is bad. You rightfully mentioned identifying the underlying need and making a plan of attack, but didn’t mention loving yourself enough to plan to meet that need.

    Many people in their anxiety to fix themselves try to quit a habit cold turkey, only to fail because their underlying needs were legitimate, like the example you used of a smoker who needs to relax. The need for relaxation is usually real, and not something to be ashamed of.

    Sometimes people fail to meet the need adequately because they lump the need with the habit, feel guilty for the need, and feel the need to punish themselves for ever having the need at all. Take your desire for a soda, for example, it is not bad to want to feel energetic, but if you expect yourself to suffer through a serious lack of energy, you’ll dramatically increase your chances of falling back into the habit.

    Perhaps going for a quick walk when you hit an energy slump, or taking a 20 minute nap would be better approaches. The point is not how you meet the need, but that you identify it, isolate it, and set about nurturing, not punishing, yourself. Punishing yourself will naturally lead to rebellious feelings later on, just like demonizing something that isn’t inherently “bad” sets of your inner bullshit meter (love that!)

    Neglecting the underlying need may also just be an oversight, in our eagerness to take advantage of whatever momentum we have, we fail to examine the problem closely and as you said, fail to make a workable plan.

  • May 29, 2010 A Good Change

    Got my ass kicked in the last post and now have an actual workable plan thanks to this one.

    3 time a week my spouse takes the kid to daycare. I love to sleep till the last possible minute before getting ready for work so as soon as they leave I’m back in bed.

    The problem is I’m tired all the time because my job is stressful and I have no time for exercise other than the morning!

    As soon as the kid leaves, I get on the treadmill. Whether I make it 10 minutes or 1, the important thing is to show up.

    A longer and more active life to enjoy with the rugrat.

    Thanks, Dave!

  • Jun 1, 2010 Mike Reeves-McMillan

    My way of framing your “painful truth #2″ is this: Hope is not a strategy.

    If anyone is looking for an external structure to help them make a plan, I have a free course ( Takes you through a simple seven-step goal-setting and planning process with videos and worksheets.

    (/ad). My aspirational habit at the moment is to be more intentional about Twitter and use it as a tool instead of a time-waster.
    Mike Reeves-McMillan´s last blog ..Are You Ready, Willing AND Able? How To Get Motivation for Any Change My ComLuv Profile

  • Jun 4, 2010 Stress management tips

    n the modern world, every individual experience from stress in every way of life. Professional stress, personal stress, peer pressure, and environmental stress are the reasons for miserable life. It was believed that kids live a tension free life, but in this competitive world even they are not spared.

  • Jul 2, 2010 Ass Kicker

    I’m trying to learn how to be punctual (tardy to work and everything else is a bad habit.) I just finished my planning time, which without getting too detailed, involves getting in bed earlier, starting the day with a few pushups at least (I am NOT a morning person) and getting up earlier so I have more time to get ready to go! Thanks Dave.

  • Oct 11, 2010 Adelaida Forson

    I, affectingly, don’t know.

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