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  • Writer's picturePeter McKenzie

5 mistakes that cause new habits to die

Updated: Mar 17, 2022

“We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act, but a habit.”


Aristotle was right (in a lot of things).

Doing something good just once or twice isn’t enough. The truth is that it is what we do day in and day out that counts.

As leaders, our team looks to us to be consistent. We most probably are consistent, but perhaps not in the way we would like to be!

Have you ever been on a leadership training course where you came away with some great ideas to improve your leadership style? Perhaps you realized you needed to learn to listen more. Or perhaps you realized you would gain a lot by becoming more organized with your planning.

Unfortunately, if you are like most people, these ideas eventually came to nothing. People easily revert to their original “baseline” style, even after they have made some effort to put new more constructive habits in place.

Why is this?

Put simply, building new habits is really hard. The same goes for eliminating bad habits. It is really hard!

Here are the 5 main reasons we fail:

1) Taking on too many things at once

In my case, when I return from a course, I am fired up to make tons of changes. I reschedule my day and try to incorporate multiple changes into my routine. This is similar to the adrenaline rush I get after making my New Year´s Resolution list (which oddly enough has pretty much the same goals on it every year!).

I fire on all cylinders for a few days and then….everything just slips back to how it was before.

The problem is that because forming a new habit or breaking an old one takes effort and time, if we scatter our energy too widely we have little chance of success.

2) Our goals are too big

We want results and FAST!

If the idea is to get fit or lose weight, most people initially launch themselves with real enthusiasm at their new objectives. In my case, for example, when I start a fitness program I tend to hit the gym day after day for hours at a time (before I get bored and give up). I see others taking up savage diets, reducing all pleasurable foods or quantities in a drastic manner.

As managers, we may be inspired by that offsite and return committed to some big behavior shifts, such as coaching our people or providing programmed feedback on a regular basis.

The thing is that once the adrenaline wears off, and if we don’t see any quick return from these initiatives, life inevitably takes over and we revert back to our previous habits

3) We only aim at the goal and forget the process

Goals are in the future. They can feel far off and don’t always serve as sufficient motivation. It can often feel like a long slog when we see little immediate sign of improvement. Sometimes we don´t even reach the final goal!

We need to feel that we have some success now. If not we stagnate and give up. We need to think clearly about our process to achieving our new habit.

What is it? How is it different to what we were doing before?

Being successful in executing the process can be the only motivation we need.

For me starting and maintaining a meditation habit was only possible because of my building and enjoying the process.

To this day I am not sure of the impact of meditation on my mind, but I have enjoyed building the habit!

4) We have no tracking mechanism

“What gets measured gets managed”

Peter Drucker

If we don´t track how we are doing with our new habit, we lose focus on where we are going.

Without clear metrics, we cannot see if our habit-building process is gaining traction (see the previous point) and we will definitely not see if we are advancing towards our objective.

Having no tracking process also means that we feel no joy during the long plateau of boredom we face when we are in the middle of building our new habit.

I find that tracking my new habit is also a habit in itself! Once I stop tracking my success or failure in building a new habit, the habit itself inevitably dies.

Not tracking progress is a surefire recipe for failure.

5) We aren´t held accountable

Most people keep quiet about their attempt to build a new habit. That is normal as most of us also believe that our success rate will be low. We don´t want to look weak.

This attitude leads to failure. For personal habits one of the most effective ways to achieve success is to publicly declare what we aim to do. This forces us to give it our best shot because no one wants to be seen to fail.

An example of this is the very blog post you are reading here. I am involved in a challenge to write 20 blog posts in 30 days. The aim is for me personally is to build a personal habit of writing every day. At the start of the challenge which involves 6 other people, we all had to publicly declare we were going for it.

Every day we all see how we are doing. That is pressure! (This is blog 10 of the 20. Let´s see if I make it to 20…!).

In the professional space, the main error I see time and time again is that people work on increasing their personal growth on their own. If the desire to implement a new behavior change or habit is declared publicly to a group or worked through with a coach, people respond to the pressure to live up to their commitment.

I will finish with the following questions for you:

- What new leadership habits would you like to build?

- Which bad leadership habits would you like to break?

- Do you fall into any (or all) of the 5 traps above?

In a future post, I will explain how to effectively build a new positive habit (or remove a bad habit).

If you want good habits to stick, send me a mail, and let´s talk.

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