I remember being fascinated by oil tankers as a young boy. I couldn’t believe how huge they were and how much oil they could carry, but I was especially amazed by how long it took them to change speed or direction. It was my first lesson in inertia, and it stuck with me.
When it comes to habits, adults are a lot like oil tankers. Making small and subtle changes isn’t too bad, like switching from Pepsi to Coke. But when it comes to making a big change in direction, well…it takes some serious effort.
Up to 90 percent of our daily activities are based on habit. Think about it—you get up, brush your teeth, get your pants out of the bottom drawer, start the car, drive the normal route to work, and then probably do generally the same thing in reverse at the end of the day.
We tend to automatically associate the word habit with bad habits. It’s true that bad habits are the ones we feel we need to change, but getting rid of them rarely works. What usually works is exchanging them for good ones.
You’ve probably tried changing some habits from time to time, and found the task to be a challenge. More often then not, the change doesn’t stick. So how does one make a big change and stay with it?
Everyone likes to seem strong and decisive. We’re not. What we need is to pick a habit to change, and then set a long-term goal of what we’d like that habit to be. We then fill in short-term goals that lead us the right direction.
An example: Your bad habit is watching 3 hours of TV per day and exercising zero hours per day. For many reasons, you’d like to get to where you watched only about an hour of TV per day and exercised at least one hour. Knowing how the vast majority of us react to just jumping in with both feet (poorly), a plan might look like this:
Week 1: 2.5h TV, 15 min exercise
Week 2: 2.0h TV, 20 min exercise
Week 3: 1.5h TV, 30 min exercise
Week 4 1.0h TV, 40 min exercise
You get the idea. By building a template for your behavior, you can keep yourself somewhat on track toward the long-term goal.
A second, and probably more important strategy is to let yourself be a human being. A common set of attributes can be seen in most people who fail to accomplish goals: perfectionism and ambition. That’s right, the better you want to do the job, and the more audacious your goal, the more likely you are to fail. Upon failure, perfectionists don’t set a more reasonable goal, they generally set a similarly audacious goal in a different area, only to (likely) fail again.
Because you’re human, you’re going to mess up and eat poorly, or miss a training day, or get sick, or whatever. Don’t worry about it. Stay with the plan. Find a way forward rather than throwing in the towel.
Hold onto the idea of a 90% effort. If your goal is to lose 20 pounds and you don’t quite make it, consider the effort a success if you made it most of the way. Set a new goal, build a new set of short-term goals to mark your progress, and try again.
Failure to reach goals is a hallmark of almost all successful people. Remember, improvement is hard, quitting is easy, and even making a slight change in course is huge. You can do it.