Stop Making New Goals—Create Habits Instead
Finally become the person you want to be.
Posted February 11, 2018
The scenario: You declare a change you want to make to achieve the results you desire. You eagerly set a goal and plan the steps. You tell yourself this time, you will commit to your goal.
Then you go back to days full of urgent emails and texts; projects falling behind; messes to clean up; fires to put out; agendas, lists and people who need to be heard out.
You think about your goal between frantic interruptions, but the days feel so overwhelming and out-of-control, you cling to what you have done in the past. You say, “Next week I’ll change when I have more time.” Lapses of distraction and masterful rationalizations crush your best-laid plans.
Sound familiar? You might feel guilty for a while, but then you conveniently forget your goal so you can focus on the more important things you must do. Or you say things like, “I am who I am” and people should accept me for that.
Humans are creatures of habit. Nearly half of what you do each day is repeated behavior. 1
No matter how invested you are in your goals, taking consistent action to change your habits is difficult. There is safety going back to old thinking and behaviors. You must take deliberate, consistent actions repeatedly over time to defy your brain if you want to achieve the results you desire.
To achieve a goal, don't plan on taking progressive steps. You must first create new habits.
People do like change, they just forget they do.
Your desire to create different outcomes is not enough to sustain change.2 To create new habits of behavior, your brain needs consistent evidence that your goal is achievable and worth the effort. Without consistent evidence, your brain will fabricate rationalizations for not changing, and give you reasons for decreasing the value of the goal. You forget why the goal is so important unless you have someone help you see your way through these typical blocks to progress.
Change is a continuum, not an event.
Your brain’s primary function is to protect you from harm and discomfort. You must convince your brain that you will not only be safe if you change, you will be better off.
To convince your brain, you must compose easily attainable steps that you will repeat for a period of time until they comfortably fit into your routine. You need visual reminders that there is a feel-good payoff for the change you want to make. Then every day, you want to recognize every time your remembered and tried to meet your commitment, even if the attempt was small. You have to show your brain that you will succeed, little by little over time.
The key to transforming your choices into a long-lasting behavioral change is to:
- Use pictures and notes to visually remind yourself of what you want to create.
- Plan and repeat small shifts in behavior so you can see early and consistent evidence that you can be successful.
- Document the evidence of each positive step when you journal and dialogue about your progress.
First, make sure you define specific activities you can celebrate. Chunk your goal into small behaviors that will move you forward to achieving your goal one step at a time. For example, if you are trying to improve your relationships by being a better listener, you might start with the practices of releasing a full breath before you respond to a question. Notice when you do this for days or weeks until the pause becomes a habit. Follow-on steps might include 1) noticing and shifting your emotions to feeling curious after your breath, 2) making sure you have fully stopped walking and working to be present with people you talk to, and 3) seeking to understand more clearly what people need and already know before you respond.
Take time with each step. Don't be impatient. You are making shifts in your routines and behaviors, not drastic changes.
You can spend as many days as you like on each step until you see consistent progress but acknowledge yourself each day for even minor attempts at achievement. Keep reminding your brain you can succeed so it will support you instead of protecting you.
The transformation is more likely to stay on track if you make a point of noticing your accomplishments every day. Write about your victories in your journal. Talk about them with others who support your growth. Send congratulations notes to yourself.
Piece-by-piece, you shift your mind and behavior. Little by little, you create new habits. Eventually, you become the person you vision yourself to be.
Dialogue keeps your brain on track
Even if you accept that you must change a behavior or habit, the act of letting go of old ways takes constant self-encouragement. It is easy to be discouraged. You might feel rejection and embarrassment if your attempts to change are rebuffed by others. You have to try out less than perfect behaviors, which can be frightening.
Asking for support and assistance can make you feel vulnerable, yet social support is important to help you override the emotions that can trigger your brain to give up your plans.
Just sharing your desires with others will strengthen your commitment. Research shows that making a new behavior automatic can take 18 to 254 days, with 2 months being the average.3 During that time, ongoing dialogue with a coach or a trusted friend can:
- Remind you of your overarching desires when you question your choices.
- Call on your strengths when you question a goal’s achievability.
- Celebrate wins with you, no matter how small, as significant steps in your journey.
- Mine the learning from each lapse so all actions are seen as valuable instead of setbacks.
Creating consistent evidence that you will succeed and using a social support system that includes a coach or mentor can help become the person you want to be.
 Neal, D.T., Wood, W., and Quinn, J.M. (20?) Habits—A repeat performance. Current Directions in Psychological Science. 15, 198-202.
 Nowack, K. (2017) Facilitating successful behavioral change: Beyond goal setting to goal flourishing. Consulting Psychology Journal: Practice and Research, Vol 69, No. 3, 153-171.
 Lally, P., Van Jaarsveld, C., Potts, H., & Wardle, J. (2010) How habits are formed: Modeling habit formation in the real world. European Journal of Social Psychology, 1009, 998-1009.