When You’re Ready to Change, But Your Habits Have Other Ideas

Our brain loves habits. Habits help us be more efficient and simplify life. For example, you probably aren’t aware of what keys your fingers touch on the keyboard, or you might arrive home with almost no memory of driving there. You can thank your habit brain for creating the quick email and driving home without looking at Google Maps.

Our habits help us use our minds for more important work. In fact, research tells us that as many as 45% of our decisions are solely based on our habits.

Yet, what happens when we need to change? And your habits are working against you. You decide it’s time to think or work differently. Yet, this need to change crashes right up against your go-to habits. According to James Clear in Atomic Habits, a great book on learning to change, “Bad habits repeat themselves again and again not because you don’t want to change, but because you have the wrong system for change.”

Our habits get in the way even if we are ready to change. For example, if you set a goal to start working out every day after work, yet when you wrap up your day – your habit brain takes the wheel. “Actually, no. That’s not what we do –we go home, put on our sweatpants and relax.” The habit brain wins!

When you need to change, here are a few simple strategies to see things differently and rework your approach or “system.” This may be eating healthier, learning a new technology, or realizing it’s time to work or lead differently.

  1. Make a tiny change. Another favorite book about learning to change is Tiny Habits which has one core message – start small. As BJ Fogg says, “It’s time for someone to say it: Lower your expectations. Which hopefully surprises people. But it’s also the right way to go if you want to help yourself feel successful and if you want to progress.”

This strategy is counter-intuitive to any high achiever. But, if you can find the one small first step, you can begin and keep building on it. For example, meet with a colleague about the new service line, sign up for a class on being more strategic, or start setting aside 15 minutes to be more intentional and plan your day. Start small and begin to change your system.

  1. Be an incrementalist. In the Super Bowl halftime show, you saw Rihanna’s incredible performance while lifted on clear glass panels high above the crowd. Surprisingly, the producer revealed that Rihanna is afraid of heights. So every day in rehearsals, they raised her a little higher to make it easier in the actual performance. It worked.

That is the right idea for us. Don’t just set big goals; look at the small decisions and steps for progress. Think bit by bit. Decide what you can do tomorrow and the next day to move forward one step at a time.

  1. Ask, ‘What do I need to know that I don’t know today?’ You make change easier by learning what you need to know. Many leaders feel they will be exposed if they don’t already have the answers. But, in a change – you can’t already know all the answers! It’s new – you haven’t done it before! So, take time to learn the new way. Listen and learn if you want to be a change champion. Don’t bring yesterday’s solution to today’s problems.

If you want to lead or make a change – look carefully at your habits. They may be standing in your way.


Patti Johnson is the CEO of PeopleResults