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How to change your bad habits

We all have bad habits that we'd like to get rid of. They can be something simple, like chewing our fingernails, or they can be something more dangerous like eating too much junk food or watching too much TV. Giving up a bad habit can be a difficult process, but it can be made easier by approaching it in the right way.

Why it's hard to stop a bad habit

Picture the scene: It's 3am in the morning, and you've just finished playing some Flash game involving towers whilst reading two-dozen blogs about funny things cats have done. You wake up the next day tired and irritable, with huge bags under your eyes.

"That's it", you say, "No more late night internet surfing for me!"

You make the commitment to stop hanging on the internet for so long. For the first few days you're clear of the internet, but it isn't long before you find yourself rubbing your eyes at 2am and wondering why you failed.

The problem isn't always that you don't have the discipline to succeed, or that you're too addicted to something. The problem is that getting rid of a habit leaves a hole to be filled. It sounds simple, but dropping the habit entirely won't fix the problem. By leaving out something like internet surfing, you're creating a gap that wants to be filled. If you don't fill it, you'll go back to your old ways.

A better solution is to replace the bad habit with a more constructive one.

Identifying your bad habits

There are two main ways of finding a bad habit. The first and easiest method is to just grab a piece of paper (or open up notepad) and write down what you think your bad habits. We're often our own worst critics, so it's not hard to fill a sheet of paper, but try not to be too hard on yourself. Focus your attention on the habits that will yield the highest rewards if you replace them.

The second way is to ask other people what your bad habits are. This can be quite an eye-opener, but be prepared to hear things you might not like. It's not essential to get feedback from other people, but it can be useful if you want to get a fuller picture.

Setting your new habit

Once you've decided on which habit to change, you must decide what you'll replace it with. I recommend only changing one habit at a time to begin, and to build upon small victories. Think of all the benefits you'll gain from taking up your new habit, and compare it to the consequences of keeping your existing habit.

It's important to visualise the benefits and how they'll make you feel, as this will help when the going gets tough (which it will). Don't forget to write all of this down, so you can refer to it as often as you need. I suggest when you wake up and before you go to bed, but it's really down to personal choice. The important thing is to constantly reinforce the belief of how this new habit will improve your life.

Changing your environment

Our environment often reinforces our current habits, so take a conscious step and change things to reinforce the habit that you want. A small change in our surroundings can make a huge difference in our habits. If your environment isn't supporting this new habit, then it's time for a change. It doesn't have to be anything dramatic, and even creating a poster with your new habit written on it can make all the difference.

For example: if you want to stop drinking lots of soda, replace all the existing drinks in your fridge with water or fruit juice, and keep bottles of water close to the areas that you work in.

The case of the chewed fingernails

To finish off with, here's a small example of how all this can work. A friend of mine had a habit of biting their fingernails that they wanted to change. They found the easiest way to prevent themselves from biting their nails was to place nail clippers around the house. The best places to put them were in areas where they would normally start biting, such as next to the couch or on the bedside table. When the urge came to bite, they could simply pick up some clippers and use them instead.

That's a very simple example, but it shows just how powerful a few small changes can be.

Success in an Hour a Day

One of the most common tips for saving money is to stop drinking your morning or lunchtime coffee, and put the money saved to one side. It's a simple action, but at the end of the year you could save several hundred dollars. It is often the case that taking a regular, small action, will yield good results simply because it you do it so many times.

Donating an hour a day

This principle can also be applied to personal development. There are plenty of activities that consume hours of our time, and they're not always particularly beneficial. What if we spent one of those hours on something more productive?

There are plenty of places you can "borrow" this hour from:

  • Internet surfing
  • TV watching
  • Excessive drinking
  • Videogames
  • Sleeping in

You don't have to give up one particular activity, and you can take the hour from anything you don't feel is important.

The difference an hour makes

Using just one hour a day will give you over 360 hours a year, which is the equivalent of nine 40-hour weeks. That's a lot of time, which is now yours to spend on something valuable. That seemingly small change of one hour a day adds up to something much bigger over the course of the year.

The only question is, how will you spend those nine extra weeks?

Keeping Your New Year's Resolutions

It's coming up to that time of year again, and millions of people across the world will be hastily writing lofty goals they want to achieve in

The top four new year's resolutions are (source):

  1. Increase exercise
  2. Be more conscientious about work or school
  3. Develop better eating habits
  4. Stop smoking, drinking, or using drugs (including caffeine)

These are all admirable goals, and the start of the year seems like the perfect time to start them. After all, it's a new year and a new beginning, so why do so many of us struggle?

Why do new year's resolutions fail?

There are plenty of reasons, but here are some of the main culprits:

  • Poorly defined – "Increase Exercise" isn't a particularly well defined goal. "Exercise for thirty minutes every Monday, Wednesday and Friday" is much clearer, and much more likely to succeed.
  • Too much, too soon – If you currently drink, smoke and do no exercise, is it realistic to expect that overnight you'll become a lean, mean, non-smoking exercise machine? Not really, and that's one of the reasons these resolutions fail.

    We often set ourselves huge, magical targets, and expect that come January 1st we'll have limitless motivation and energy to complete anything we want. This isn't to say that big goals are bad, but they must be consistent with the current level of your abilities.

  • Expecting to fail – New Year's Resolutions are generally regarded as something of a joke. We don't really expect to keep them, and if we give up it's not treated. This is the wrong mindset for any kind of goal, as if you expect to fail you almost certainly will.
  • No planning – 79% of people don't create a plan for achieving their resolutions, and approximately 35% of people stop within the first two months. Failing to plan is planning to fail, as they say.

Tips for achieving your new year's resolutions

Now that we know some of the reasons why resolutions fail, we can look at ways to improve the situation.

Clearly define your goals

Put some time and thought into your goals. Ask yourself what you really want, and don't feel pressured into taking up the same resolutions as everyone else. Saying "I'll never drink again!" when you're hung over on the 1st of January isn't the most well thought out goal. Set aside some time to yourself, and be creative with what you want.

If this is your first time setting serious goals, you might want to read the article "Goal setting for beginners".

Set smaller goals

It's good to set large goals, but they're of no benefit if you know you'll give up on them early. Trying to give up all of your bad habits in one go is a recipe for disaster, which will likely lead to early failure.

Use 30 day trials

Instead of setting one huge goal, why not try out lots of different goals by using 30 day trials? This makes it easier to take up many different habits throughout the year, and you may find that some things that you wanted don't have the benefits you thought they would.

A short trial is a great way to learn more about your capabilities, and it also gives you lots of small successes that you can use to motivate yourself.

Daily reviews

Make reviewing your goals the first thing you do in the morning. Well, it can be the second thing if you need the bathroom!

Write them on an index card and carry it in your wallet or purse. When you have a few spare minutes during the day, take it out and read through your goals again. Constantly remind yourself of what you want to achieve, and you'll find it much easier to get there.

Create a plan

Planning isn't the most glamorous activity, but it is a valuable exercise. Break your goal down into small, actionable steps.

Trying to go straight to the top is extremely difficult, so take it one step at a time. You wouldn't try to lift the heaviest weight at the gym if you'd never lifted before. Start small, and gradually work your way towards success.

Other Tips

There are a few other tips you can use to increase the chances that you'll complete your resolutions.

Fill your environment with reminders

Create posters, charts, books of inspirational quotes and pictures, or anything else that you think will help you achieve your goals. Want a new car? Then stick a picture of it on your wall. Use the power of positive visualisation to help the goal stick in your mind.

A nice example of this is by Jack Canfield in the film "The Secret". He wanted to earn 100,000 dollars, so he created a $100,000 bill and stuck it to his ceiling. It was the first thing he'd see in the morning, and the last thing he'd see at night. Keep the goal in your mind.

Keep a journal or progress log

Keeping a record of your progress has many advantages, and allows you to spot areas you are struggling. It's also another way of reminding you of your goals, and it helps you to make sure that you take a small step towards success every day.

Use a focusing partner

Get a friend or relative to help with your goal. It's always good to have a friend along for the journey, and they can help pick you up when the going gets tough.

Nobody's perfect

You can't complete every goal, and you will fail at some. Remember that failure doesn't matter. Even if you only gain one piece of insight, or learn one new thing from your goal, you haven't wasted your time and energy.

As an example, let's look at my resolutions for 2006. To tell you the truth, I can't even remember them! Looking back, it appears that I wanted to blog more, start my business and finish the rest of my games website.

As you can probably guess, what actually happened was completely different, but not in a bad way. I started this personal development website, released some small source code libraries, wrote some in-depth articles and conducted several indie developer interviews. It's not entirely what I had in mind when I set my resolutions (if you can call them that), but it's been a great experience.

All the best for 2007!

If you're setting resolutions for the year 2007, then I wish you all the best in achieving all you can and more. Here's to a happy and prosperous new year!

Using a Focusing Partner

In "Agile Achievement", I briefly mentioned using a focusing partner to help you achieve your goals. In this article I'll be expanding on that point, and discussing what a focusing partner is and what they do.

A focusing partner is a person you deeply trust that will help you with your goals. They could be your spouse, a relative or a close friend. It doesn't have to be a one-way street, so you can both encourage each other as you work towards your goals. Remember that you aren't always going to succeed, so make sure you're comfortable with your focusing partner seeing you during your highs and lows.

The most important thing is that you must feel comfortable sharing your goals and plans, as holding back will only make things harder. Goal setting can be a deeply personal and spiritual exercise, and it often reveals the things that you hold to be truly important. Letting someone see this part of you can be difficult, especially if your ego is chattering away in the background.

Let go of the fear that you'll become vulnerable by revealing yourself. Once you've moved past this fear, you'll see that having a person to help you makes a huge difference to your life.

What's involved with being a focusing partner?

This all depends on personal preference, but as a bare minimum you should be in regular contact to discuss your progress. How often you meet is entirely up to you, but you should aim for at least once a week.

A focusing partner's duties include:

  • Reviewing progress – You should discuss your progress with your focusing partner, even if it's just a five minute phone call to ask how you're doing on each of your main goals. It's a good idea to have a copy of each other's major goals and plans to be reviewed, as well as any targets you may have set yourselves.
  • Reviewing plans – You will need to plan for any reasonably sized goal, so share your plans and review them regularly. It's often much easier for your focusing partner to see if they are realistic, as we can often give ourselves an unreasonable amount of work to do.
  • Talking through ideas – There will be bumps in the road, so it's always good to have someone to talk to about these problems. You can creatively work to solve each other's problems, and discuss your goals and plans for the future.
  • Objectively analysing strengths and weaknesses – Sometimes things will go right, and sometimes they will go wrong. Having an outside view on your situation can help you get a clearer view on what is actually happening. Beating yourself up over a failure will get you nowhere, and having a person to remind you of just how much you have achieved is invaluable.

Why use a focusing partner?

It can be very difficult to develop a personal sense of accountability when setting goals. It's all too easy to let days, weeks, and even months pass by without ever moving closer to your objectives. By telling someone about your goals, you're becoming accountable to them as well as yourself. This added incentive can be a huge boost to your powers of goal achievement.

Another large benefit of a focusing partner is that they can help push you outside of your comfort zone. Becoming stuck in a rut can sap your creativity and productivity, and having a close friend to motivate you through these difficult times can be invaluable.

A good example of this benefit can be seen in an activity such as running. If you're on your own, it's very easy to stop as soon as you're out of breath for the first time. Having a runner alongside you can help push you through the initial discomfort, and you'll find you become fitter much faster than if you were running on your own.

Don't be caught in the trap of thinking you have to achieve everything by yourself. Two people together can achieve much greater results than either one of them could individually.

Agile Achievement

Have you ever been inspired to write a plan for your life, and then months have gone by and nothing has got done? We often focus on what's right in front of us, and our long term goals get left behind. Setting a goal is only part of the process, you must also review the goal and take action.

One problem you may face when setting big goals is that they are difficult to get a grip on when planning. Setting yourself a large target, such as becoming a millionaire, is easy enough, but planning all the steps necessary to achieve it is much, much harder.

Extreme Programming

As a software developer, I'm used to breaking large tasks into smaller chunks, and it seemed like some of the methods used in software development could be used in the field of personal development and goal achievement.

Software can be big and complex, and creating it can be very expensive and risky. There are plenty of methodologies that can be used to create it, but one that has recently caught my attention is eXtreme Programming. Although the name makes it sound like programming whilst leaping out of a plane, it's more about making developers more productive by distilling all of the various tasks into smaller units.

The rules of XP are broken into 4 sections: Planning, Designing, Coding and Testing. Not all of these fit into goal achievement, so I've revised them into more appropriate categories. They are: Defining, Planning, Taking Action and Measuring.

Of all the categories, Taking Action is the most important. Without Action, nothing else will happen. You can plan a goal forever and a day, but unless you actually do something, it'll never happen.


The first stage of any goal is to define the ideal outcome that you want. Without a clear picture of what you want to achieve, you'll struggle to get anywhere at all.

Define the Outcome

This is the process of deciding on the "what". The "how" comes at the planning stage, so concentrate on what is to be achieved and don't worry too much about how it will be achieved.

Goal setting can be a very difficult, but also a very rewarding process. It takes time and patience to understand the best way to set your goals, and there's no "one size fits all" solution. It's best to experiment with different methods to find which style suits you the best. I wrote some tips for goal setting in "goal setting for beginners", which might help at this stage.

Create Visualisations

Once the goal is defined, use the power of visualisations to imagine the goal as already completed. You can use vision boards or picture goal books to help.


There's no escaping the fact that any sufficiently large goal will require a degree of planning in order to achieve it. Planning should follow these rules:

Break Into Iterations

Instead of trying to achieve the goal in one fell swoop, break it into smaller chunks, or "iterations". The advantage of using this approach is that you can quickly react to changes in your circumstances.

You can think of using iterations like creating a sculpture of a person. The first iteration is the rough outline, creating large blocks such as limbs and the head. More detail is then added with each successive iteration, until eventually it is complete. You don't start by carving out the fine detail.

Only Plan One Iteration at a Time

It can be extremely tempting to plan several stages ahead, but you must resist this urge at all costs. You should only plan the current iteration, as planning too far ahead removes the advantages of using the iterative approach.

Have Frequent Releases

Don't squirrel away on a project for years until things are "just right". Get something done and get it out there, and then refine it as time goes on. Taking the "ready, fire, aim" can help to beat procrastination, and will also help you gain valuable feedback as you go. It might turn out that your goal isn't having the desired effect on your life, but by breaking it into small chunks you'll find out much sooner.

You should aim for every chunk to have at least one deliverable. For example, writing a book might have a rough outline as a deliverable, or a single chapter or 10 designs for the layout.

Adopt a "Just In Time" Mindset

Don't add anything before it is required. It can be tempting to spend days working on "laying the foundations", but that time will be wasted if you find out you didn't actually need any of it. For example, if you're starting a new business, don't buy hundreds of business cards or a purchase a monster web server until you actually need them.

Refactor Often and Mercilessly

In software, refactoring is the process of changing your code to make it more readable or better structured without changing the behaviour the same. For goal setting, improve your visualisations and goals as often as you need to. Instead of ripping them down and starting again, build on the foundations.

Be open to change, and don't become attached to how things are. Your goals have got you this far, when they've had their time be prepared to let them go. A good analogy for this from the XP website:

A caterpillar is perfectly designed to eat vast amounts of foliage but he can't find a mate, so he must refactor himself into a butterfly before he is designed to search the sky for others of his own kind.

Taking Action

The most important phase is taking action. Only you can move yourself closer to the completion of your goals, so take action to get there!

Don't Work Alone

Don't feel as if you have to do it all on your own, because you don't. Find a mentor or use a focusing partner to help you reach your goals faster. A focusing partner will help you with your goals by giving encouragement and objective observations, and will also give a sense of accountability.

Review Frequently

A forgotten goal will never be achieved, so review it as frequently as you need too. Ask your mentor or focusing partner to help, so that your goal is cemented into your mind. Put up reminders around your house and office, and use visualisations and affirmations to help you keep the goal in the present.

Don't Optimise Too Soon

This comes from taking the "ready, fire, aim" approach. Don't optimise until the groundwork is laid and you have some form of measurement that you can use to improve your situation. Don't worry about getting everything perfect the first time round. NOTHING is created perfect, and more often than not you'll find new ways to improve things once you've started taking action.

Don't Work Overtime

If a task is taking a lot longer than expected, don't give in to the temptation of putting in more hours to sort it out. Instead, use your next planning session to modify the project accordingly. Working overtime will suck out your motivation and make you miserable, and although it sounds logical that working longer will help you get more done, it can (and does) have the opposite effect.

As the saying goes, "work smarter, not harder". Burning yourself out will achieve nothing.


Keeping some form of measurement is a simple way of increasing your productivity. When you measure your progress, you can see areas for improvement and work on them accordingly.

All Goals Have Tests

You should be able to know at any point in time if a goal has been achieved or not. Be specific when setting your goals, and don't leave them open to interpretation.

Measure Your Success

How you do this is up to you. You might want to use a progress log, or something else. Journal often, and look for areas where you can refactor or optimise. This is really down to individual preference, and you may wish to track different things for different goals.

Measuring anything will help you improve it, and when you have frequent planning sessions you're able to put these new things into effect quickly.

Be Flexible

The most important part of "agile achievement" is to be flexible. It's a fact of life that circumstances will change, and this will cause rigid goals to break. Be flexible and open to change, and don't get attached to any particular way of doing things.