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Here’s What It Really Takes to Shift Habits

Written by Dr. Sam Mathis, Live Well Kitsap Business Member, Founder and Coach at Beyond Limits Consulting.

The New Year is a great time to take stock of your life and focus on new, healthy habits. Most of us will have experienced challenge at some point over the past year and I know many people, myself included, may be looking forward to a change and a fresh start in the year ahead.

January is the time most people often set new habits or goals, full of enthusiasm and optimism. But, as you’ve probably witnessed for yourself, most people lose that momentum and ultimately abandon those best intentions. It can therefore betempting to grow cynical about this. After all, we all have our demons, and some of them are things you’ve probably been struggling with your whole life. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve resolved to exercise more, work less, focus more on me and so on.

But here’s what happens: I might end up doing some of things for a while, and then I get overwhelmed, lose interest or something else happens. I feel like there’s too much to do, and for every new habit I want to adopt, there’s something else I have to give up. You see, the problem with most new habits is that they’re just a want, a wish, or a vague idea - there’s no hard deadline or specificity to the goal. The fact is that vague goals or wishes produce vague results.

The challenges with habits

Habits are also full of paradoxes. On the one hand, they make life easier because they are automatic. On the other hand, they make change harder because they are automatic. Habits create pathways between neurons in the brain. This is helpful; for example, this means that once we learn to eat, we don’t have to think about eating. This is less helpful when it comes to the many things we do that are not so good for us - such as overusing that eating habit - can also be done without our conscious awareness. Habit change is hard because the neural pathways have been strengthened by all the traffic on them. It takes time and lots of repetition for the new pathways to become as strong as the older ones.

Also, no one likes the feeling of deprivation! Because true change involves letting go of or altering a habit - and a habit is something that, by definition, you’ve learned to do regularly and find hard to stop.

As Malcolm Gladwell wrote in his book ‘Outliers’, the key to mastering a skill is practice. While there is some debate on the number of hours required, a lot more goes into mastering a skill than practice. To become great takes a number of factors, such as genetic and environmental, and their interactions make us who we are and what we accomplish. However, conscious, or deliberate, practice is the most important factor by far.

How to change habits

Why does it feel so hard to change habits? Why is change difficult? It’s easy to get overwhelmed when you are facing changes that seem enormous or are an extreme difference from where you are today. We say to ourselves, “this is not working. It’s no use,” and then we revert back to what we know. We love what’s familiar.

Changing habits or creating new habits is challenging because we aren’t focused on the “WHY” or the deeper reason for prompting change. We have to ask ourselves questions before we rattle off a list of things that we will never do again or all the new things we will begin to implement. WHY do we need to change? WHO do we want to become?

Simon Sinek, author of ‘Start With Why’, has written about discovering your ‘why’ and living in alignment with your purpose. His tool, ‘The Golden Circle’, popularized in his TedTalks, describes needing:

  1. Clarity of WHY

  2. Discipline of HOW

  3. Consistency of WHAT

Figure 1: The Golden Circle, Simon Sinek, 2006

No one section of ‘The Golden Circle’ is more important than the other. The most important thing is a balance across all three. It is about knowing:


If you don’t know WHY you do WHAT you do, how can you expect anyone else to know? For others to know your WHY, you must first have that clarity yourself.


In order to bring your WHY to life, you must be disciplined in living your HOWs. You must behave in ways that are aligned with your values, guiding principles, strengths and beliefs.


And everything you say and do must be consistent with what you believe. After all, we live in the tangible world. The only way people will know what you believe is if you say and do the things you actually believe.

Often, we focus on what we want to achieve without considering the why or the how, which is more powerful than getting or having something. Once you understand your WHY, you’ll be able to clearly articulate what makes you feel fulfilled and to better understand what drives your behavior when you’re at your natural best. When you can do that, you’ll have a point of reference for everything you do going forward. You’ll be able to make more intentional choices for your life.

I work with many client who are experts in their field, and need some help in achieving their goals, whether a career change or working more effectively with their teams. I always ask ‘why’ is a particular goal important to them. I ask ‘why’ a number of times to really dig down into those hidden motivations and to understand their triggers and self-beliefs. Often clients themselves do not fully or consciously realize what their true motivations are. I had one client who just saw their work in the context of a very specialized nature of their expertise. Coaching this client, I helped them recognize what core values were central to how they valued themselves as a professional. We used the Golden Circle Tool to help them “arrive at bigger picture truths which yielded helpful insights about my professional future”. The result is you uncover powerful drivers that really push your client’s buttons, making it easier to choose your coaching and support techniques, from the words and phrases you use, to the resources you provide. By focusing on what your client can do, rather than what they can't, not only is there more chance they'll complete the actions, the sense of success this creates is hugely empowering and will motivate them to keep progressing towards their goal.

In order to break past that self-sabotage, we must take on a new mindset, a growth mindset. Having processes in place to make change is also important. When I started my doctorate too many years ago, I didn’t decide that I would go straight to writing the thesis. I set a plan that started right where I was, discussed with my tutor and built up slowly from there. However, it was my mindset that I kept having to shift because that little annoying voice would say, “why are you doing this? This is taking too much time, STOP!”. It WAS hard! I didn’t have any desire to write again, but here I am writing a blog. I had to change my mindset from “this is awful” to “just write a little more, until I’m finished”.

Our urges are different. Maybe it’s snacking when we know we shouldn’t. Maybe it’s skipping your daily workout. Maybe the TV is beckoning you away from work. We are programmed to just give in to the urge because the other thing we are avoiding is more difficult, according to our mindset.

5 Tips to keep on track

  1. Simplify. Make any goals simple enough that you could do it in just a few minutes. You can consistently achieve that daily goal and build a powerful new habit in the process. Otherwise, you will most likely end up wandering aimlessly without making any real progress towards the change you want.

  2. Write it Down. Write down your goals and track progress. The former can be as simple as marking how many times a day you engage in the habit, or as elaborate as describing what was going on inside you and around you when you engaged in the habit.

  3. Get an Accountability Buddy. Have an accountability partner that you report your progress to on a regular basis. This can be a family member, a co-worker, a personal coach, or trusted friend.

  4. Manage Negative Self-talk. Recognize negative self- talk - “This will never work”; or “I can’t do it”- as thoughts, not reality. Manage negative self-talk through mindfulness as well as disputing it by reminding yourself of times you have made changes.

  5. Practice Mindfulness. This means first making a conscious decision to notice the habit more and to notice the thoughts, feelings and sensations at that time. Check out this mindfulness program.

Whatever it is - a healthier you, better work habits, a thriving business, a new job - it will be hard…right now. Over time, it gets easier and you have to remind yourself that hard is ok. You can do it anyway. Connecting with the ‘why’ will help solidify the importance of any goal that you set. Small changes can compound into remarkable results. Your own growth is only limited by you, your mindset, and your level of commitment.


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