How to overcome the biggest barrier to adopting successful habits
How many times have you shared advice with someone only to have them say, “Pssht, is that all? Everyone knows that. It’s common sense.” But, I’m sure you’ve noticed that common sense does not naturally translate into common practice. During my decades-long career, I can’t even count the number of times I’ve witnessed people fail to take obvious action.
Are there really any secrets to success anymore? We have millions of books and websites at our fingertips, loaded with stories of success, advice, and recommendations. There are more than enough examples to follow.
It isn’t that people don’t know what it takes to achieve success.
It’s that most people aren’t willing to do what it takes to achieve success. They never overcome their inertia to even get started. They don’t sustain the effort required. Or, they bail as soon as things become uncomfortable or painful.
Taking consistent action despite the uncertainty, fear, and discomfort is what sets the winners apart from the masses.
So, we all have the knowledge. If that knowledge is so obvious that it seems like common sense, then why doesn’t it become common practice? Why isn’t everyone doing what it takes?
If there is any secret to adopting the successful habits that generate success, I think it comes down to this:
Note that I didn’t mention “knowledge.” We all have access to the same knowledge. That’s no secret. But, winners take the knowledge that is available to all of us and they take action. They actually do something with it. These three forces drive them to succeed in building their new habits.
I almost wrote this article about nothing more than accountability. It is an incredibly powerful psychological tool. When I’ve witnessed people fail to make a positive change in their life, it can often be traced to a lack of accountability. No one is watching, so who cares?
On the flip side, I also know people who were able to completely turn around a failed habit plan by adding accountability. Once they knew that others were aware of their success or failure, they renewed their efforts. Why? Because they were finally accountable to someone. They didn’t want to disappoint that person. They made a promise, and they were reluctant to let that person down.
I observed this firsthand with my own journey back to fitness. The biggest change in my exercise habits came from the four years I spent doing CrossFit. I had dabbled in exercise on and off for over a decade, but I knew that no one was watching. If wanted to sleep in when I felt tired, it was all too easy to pull the blankets back up and skip my morning workout. CrossFit changed that.
Yes, there certainly was a decent amount of knowledge and skill acquisition thanks to the coach, which did help set me on a better path. But, knowing that my CrossFit group was waiting every morning, helped me get out of bed on the coldest of mornings. Picturing the disappointment of my lifting partner kept me showing up, even when I desperately wanted to skip that day.
I was accountable to them, and I knew it. They would hold me to that promise, and I experienced that too. If I did happen to miss a session, there was always someone who would say, “Nice of you to show up today. Where in the hell were you yesterday?”
As human beings, we want to belong. We seek approval and acceptance. We avoid the disapproval of the group. Find the right people who will support and encourage your new habit, make yourself accountable to them, and you’ll greatly increase your odds of sustained success.
The Association for Talent Development (ATD) performed a study on accountability and found the following probabilities of accomplishing a goal:
- 10% if you simply have a goal in mind
- 25% if you consciously decide that you will achieve it
- 40% if you set a date by which you will achieve it
- 50% if you create a plan for how you will do it
- 65% if you make a promise to someone else that you will do it
- 95% when you make specific accountability appointments with that person (this is probably why 1-on-1 career coaching works so well)
At some point, once your habits are well established, you may be able to create a plan to be accountable to yourself. I transitioned to this after my time at CrossFit. I knew what I needed to do. I had a clear training program and schedule. I am pretty hard on myself. When I tell myself that I will work out for an hour, and do this many sets and reps, I will refuse to stop until I do it. I don’t want to disappoint my future self.
I read an interesting article by Mark Manson related to success, happiness, and struggles in life. He said:
What determines your success isn’t “What do you want to enjoy?” The question is, “What pain do you want to sustain?” The quality of your life is not determined by the quality of your positive experiences but the quality of your negative experiences. And to get good at dealing with negative experiences is to get good at dealing with life.
Commitment is your plan to see things through, and persist through the discomfort and pain. It is the promise you make to your accountability partners. It means that you will commit to fulfilling that promise, even when it would be easier to give up. You commit to the long-term goal over short-term pleasure.
When you make a commitment to the people who will hold you accountable, breaking that commitment must have consequences. Sometimes those consequences come from the person or the group (e.g., disappointment, shunning, or even expulsion). Lifelong change comes when you internalize the consequences of abandoning your integrity (more on this next).
Winners also commit to a process. A daily practice often trumps goal setting, which can seem intangible at times. The luster of that goal can lose its shine in the face of adversity. Therefore, successful people tend to structure their lives to optimize their chances for continuous progress.
“We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act, but a habit.” – Will Durant
When people with deep integrity give their word, they keep their word. If they say they are going to do something, they will do it. They have aligned their behavior with their internal values.
No if, ands, or buts.
No excuses. No hedging. No complaints.
It is this integrity that makes the accountability work even better. Sadly, I have known of people who were accountable to others, and aware of that accountability, yet still let those people down. When questioned, they would make excuses about why they couldn’t follow through on their commitment.
Accountability occurs when you make a promise to others—or even yourself—that you will do something. Possessing integrity means that you will honor that promise, because doing so is in alignment with the values you hold dear.
One of my favorite books is Conscious Business: How to Build Value Through Values by Fred Kofman. He talks about the importance of essential integrity. He even goes so far as to claim that happiness is tied to integrity, not necessarily achieving success.
“Most people believe that happiness is an outcome, a result that accrues to the winner. This is just not true… Happiness comes from integrity rather than success, from behavior in alignment with essential values rather than winning or losing.” – Fred Kofman
So, not only will integrity help you remain accountable to achieve your goals, it may lead to greater happiness. We all have experienced how bad it feels to behave in ways that aren’t aligned with our values and beliefs. Maintaining your integrity ensures that won’t occur.
Optimize for your own success
Making a change is hard. Giving up bad habits feels impossible at times. Establishing new positive habits seems insurmountable.
Commit to a consistent daily process. Start small, but simply keep going and do not stop. Actions create progress. Progress fuels accomplishments.
Make a promise that you will make this change. Make a promise to honor your commitment. Maintain your integrity to deliver on that promise.
Finally, use accountability as the most powerful tool to keep yourself honest. Ask that person who hears your promise to hold you accountable. If you’re the kind of person who can hold yourself accountable, that’s great. But, if you need to be accountable to someone else to ensure that you follow through, then find that accountability partner.
I play that role for my clients. I do have a process and I often have unique insights because I can see things from a different perspective. But, many of my clients know what they should be doing to invest in themselves and their careers.
I will share some advice with them and they will literally say, “I know, I know. I really should be doing that. Thank you for the reminder and giving me a kick in the butt.”
Sometimes all we really need is that kick in the butt. Someone to believe in us, urge us on, and remind us why we started on this journey in the first place. We know what we need to do. We just need a gentle push to keep us doing it.
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