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Why it’s nearly impossible to replace bad habits with good ones—and what to do instead (Fast Co.)

There may be good reasons for our current habits.

Layoffs, laid off, bounce back from being laid off

(Originally published in Fast Company. Photo: Engin Akyurt/Pexels)

This month, many of us crafted resolutions, chose theme words, and set new goals for the new year ahead.

Moments that stand out in time—whether it be a holiday, first day of the week, or new job—structure our perception and use of time. These temporal landmarks create the feeling of a clean slate and produce the so-called “fresh start effect.” Given the opportunity for a do-over, many of us become more motivated to pursue our goals.

But while the new year can be helpful for kick-starting change, our success in sticking to our resolutions is often dismal. By the second week of February, some 80% of resolutions have already failed.

That’s because, regardless of how much we might want to achieve our goals, changing our behavior is notoriously hard. We must disrupt how we’ve been doing things while fostering a new set of actions, and the process usually takes longer than we’d like.

Part of the problem is that our approach is flawed. We set a goal, such as achieving more work-life balance or starting our own business. And then we set off with vigor to do things differently. We commit to shutting down the computer by 6 p.m. every day or writing that business plan. Maybe we stick to it for a while, but over time find ourselves not following through. We’re back to where we started, but with a dose of discouragement and shame.

We often neglect to consider that there may be good reasons for our current habits. They serve a purpose and are undergirded by firmly held but often unconscious beliefs. We can remain stuck unless we reveal those beliefs and question their underlying assumptions.

The tricky thing is that our assumptions are often deeply rooted and operate in the background of our consciousness. It’s hard to see them. However, by following the process outlined here, you can expose any assumptions that may be holding you back, examine their validity, and dramatically increase the chances of achieving the change you seek.


Start by listing all the things you are currently doing or not doing that are counter to your goal. For example, suppose your goal is to increase work-life balance. In that case, your list might include things like, “I work until late in the evening” or, “I prioritize work over seeing friends.”

Now, imagine doing the exact opposite of what you are currently doing. What fears and worries arise if you were not to burn the midnight oil? Do you worry that you might not get promoted? Or that people will see you as a slacker? Write all your fears and concerns down.

The final step in this process is to reveal the assumptions underlying those concerns. Consider your fears and ask yourself, “What must I believe to be true that makes these fears feel real?” For example, do you assume that working long hours is necessary for success? Or that taking time for yourself is selfish?

These beliefs will keep you stuck, because as much as you may say you want work-life balance, your brain will try to protect you from your fears, effectively creating what Harvard professors Robert Kegan and Lisa Lahey call an immunity to change. The problem is that fears loom larger in our brains than they are—and are often based on assumptions that aren’t entirely true.

You might also reveal some limiting beliefs you have about yourself. For instance, let’s say you want to start your own business. By working through the process above, you may recognize you’re afraid you might fail. Or that you don’t believe you have the skills or experience to be successful. Naturally, some preparation is prudent, but with this limiting assumption, you’ll likely find yourself endlessly planning versus taking the courageous leap your goal requires.

Now that you’ve revealed your assumptions, it’s time to see how valid they really are.


Sometimes our assumptions are valid, but they’re often not entirely true or accurate all the time. Problems arise when we accept our assumptions fully without examining their validity. Take a closer look at the evidence or experiences that support your assumptions. Due to confirmation bias, you’ll likely find some. So, instead, focus on the counter facts.

What data or experiences contradict your assumptions? For example, has taking time for yourself ever had negative consequences? Do you know others who don’t work such long hours and are equally or more successful?

Sometimes, revealing and thinking critically about our assumptions is all we need to see their flaws and move past them. Other times, we must test them to see how true they are.

For example, if you’re worried you don’t have what it takes yet to start your own business, you might ask other entrepreneurs how they knew they were ready to take the leap. You’ll likely find out they never felt wholly set but took the plunge anyhow. If you want greater work-life balance, you might run an experiment where you close your computer one hour earlier each day for a week to see what happens. The key is to figure out low-risk ways to test the validity of your beliefs.

By questioning and testing our assumptions, we often find that many of them are faulty and can dismantle the erroneous beliefs that keep us stuck.

This process isn’t required for every goal. Sometimes the “just do it” approach is all you need. But if you find yourself failing to achieve and sustain the change your desire, shifting your mindset might be the very unlock you need.


With daily fires to fight and limited space to think, I understand how the pressures rob your clarity. As a certified executive coach, I help senior leaders and their teams gain fresh perspective, confidence and new capabilities that accelerate their success. Work with Dina


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