The disappointing truth is that we never get rid of old habits; we just replace them with stronger ones.  The wiring for the old habit is still there, so we need to make sure a new habit gets programmed in to our brain really comprehensively, and is then reinforced with constant use.

Kelly McGonigal’s highly readable book “The Willpower Instinct” gives some excellent insights in to how to stick to good habits and how to recognise when we are at risk of slipping back in to bad ones.


The Right Habit

The first point here is to create the right habit in the first place.  Link a good habit to your overarching purpose and make sure you can connect the action with why you are doing it.  Most good intentions fail because we don’t really care as much about the outcome as we might think.

I think the concept of setting “SMART” goals tends to make this worse.  With the intention of making a goal specific, we often move away from what we really care about and the repeat action (habit) that gets created is too loosely linked to anything purposeful to be worth sticking to when the going gets tough.

For example, we may create a Balanced Score card to measure how effective we are each month at achieving our goals.  We care about doing a great job (purpose) and the scorecard should ensure that we do just that.  We intend to turn this in to a helpful habit, scoring the card & setting a new one on the first day of each month.  It tends to breakdown quickly though, because we don’t actually care about whether we score 56% or 72%, because the scorecard setting exercise doesn’t affect our day-to-day actions.

In other words, the setting of the SMART goal (e.g. completing the balanced scorecard) gets us thinking too much about measurability and not about purpose and quickly breaks down.


Be realistic

We also need to be realistic.  The second reason habits fail is that we tend to be over-ambitious when setting them.  Like setting the alarm clock 45 minutes early every day and running 5kms before breakfast.  Kudos to you if you can stick to that, but the rest of us are all too human.


Be Adaptable

Thirdly, habits need to be adaptable.  This might seem contrary to reinforcing a habit with practice and repetition, but often we don’t really know exactly what we need to do regularly to form a lasting habit.  Giving yourself licence to tweak and change what you do is not only sensible, it’s essential.

The main point about habits, which you already know is to keep going.  There’s some very unscientific assertions that you have to do something for 28 days for it to stick – there’s no magic number you have to just keep doing it and then… keep doing it some more.


A note on how to change Organisational habits

In change management programmes, it’s common practice now to invite in “early adaptors” or “champions” to get new systems or processes (habits) bedded in. This is great, but I’d suggest making sure you get some Completer-Finishers involved at an early stage too.  The early adopters will be on to the next thing soon enough and you will need others who are good at doing something and then doing it again and again.


Email is a particularly bad habit former.  Click on this link to consider getting control of email

Click on this link to explore PLASMA, a research backed approach to more effective goal setting