The 7 common mistakes that cause new habits to fail (and how to avoid them)

The difference between people who stick to their new habits and those who don’t, is that the former avoid making common mistakes that cause habits to fail.

At the start of each year, millions of people around the globe—highly motivated to turn over a new leaf—write down their New Year’s resolutions for the year and firmly hold unto the belief that “this year will be different.”

But is this year really that different?

By the third week in March each year, the large number of New Year’s Resolution-ers begin to drop out like flies.

It’s not uncommon to notice a significant decline in gym memberships, event attendances, book purchases and savings, around this period.

By the end of each year, only 19% of people have stuck to their New Year’s Resolutions—which means there’s an 81% chance that your New Year’s Resolution will fail this year. 1

The difference between people who stick to their new habits and those who don’t, is that the former avoid making common mistakes that cause habits to fail.

Here are the seven common mistakes that cause new habits to fail with strategies to help you avoid them, and finally stick to your New Year’s Resolutions this year.

Mistake No. 1: Trying to do too much, too quickly

At the start of a new year, we experience an intense rush of excitement and motivation to change our lives for the better, and begin to pursue many goals.

The problem is often we fail to recognize that this newfound motivation is an artificial high that’ll only last for a few weeks.

Once the motivation dies out, we struggle to devote adequate energy and time to all of the goals we’ve set, we lose focus and eventually give up.

Solution: Resist the temptation to take on more goals than you can handle. Count the costs ahead of time and ask yourself the following questions to decide if the goal is worth pursuing:

How high a priority is this goal compared to the others? Do I have enough time and energy to devote to this goal on a weekly basis? Can I breakdown the goal into smaller, more sustainable targets?

If a goal ranks low in your priority list and there’s little time available to devote towards it, consider eliminating it altogether.

As painful and challenging as this may be, quitting on your goals and eliminating the inessential is a powerful strategy used by high achievers to stay focused on what matters and consistently achieve their goals.

Mistake No. 2: Focusing on the goal and not the system

In the best-selling book Atomic Habits (Audiobook), Habits expert, James Clear, challenges the widespread belief that goal-setting is necessary to achieve success.

Clear makes a strong argument that goals (results you want to achieve) without strong systems (the processes that lead to the results) leads to failure, and presents a thought-provoking question:

“If you completely ignored your goals and focused only on your system, would you still succeed?”

In my experience, the difference between the goals I’ve failed to achieve and the ones that have succeeded is the system.

For example, last year I set a goal to sponsor the primary school education of at least 10 impoverished children, and I failed to do so because my system was non-existent.

Pursuing goals without a good system is like trying to hit a bulls-eye whilst throwing darts, blindfolded. Your odds of success are very slim.

Solution: Breakdown each goal you have into the processes and actions that would lead to your desired results, and focus on improving them.

Here are a few examples:

  • If your goal is to lose weight and get in shape, your system is how often and how well you exercise, how often you make healthy choices over unhealthy ones and so on.
  • If your goal is to become a better writer, your system is how often and how well you practice writing, how well you research ideas to write about and so on.
  • If your goal is to grow your business, your system is how you well you hire employees, test product ideas and so on.

In the words of Greek poet Archilochus, “We don’t rise to the level of our expectations, we fall to the level of our training.”

Mistake No. 3: Failure to change environment

Environment is arguably the most important invisible force that influences human behavior.

What exactly is environment? It’s anything we experience through any one of our five senses. But the most powerful of these is sight.

For example, you’re more likely to purchase items at eye level in a supermarket aisle than items near the floor. Because of this, stores strategically position expensive brand names—that’ll drive more profits—within our eyesight and cheaper alternatives hidden away from view.

This is particularly true for items at the end of aisles—45 percent of Coca-Cola sales are generated from end-of-the-aisle racks. 2

In a similar fashion, you can design your environment to make it much easier to stick to healthy habits and break bad ones.

For example, last year I made one tiny change to my environment that helped me to read significantly more books than the year before.

The change was extremely simple: I held a book in my hands wherever I traveled to and from.

And because of this, during my commutes and travels, I’d read my books instead of wasting valuable time on my mobile phone apps.

Bearing in my mind that my goal at the start of the year was to read 20 books, I was pleasantly surprised to discover that I’d surpassed my goal and read a total of 25 books.

This is the power of environment.

Solution: Brainstorm different ways you can design your environment to make it easier to stick to your new habit.

Here are a few examples:

  • If you want to eat healthier, remove unhealthy foods from sight and position healthy foods within eyesight. For example, you could keep a bowl of apples in the middle of your dining table.
  • If you want to exercise more, pack your gym clothes the night before bed and leave them as an obstruction to your bedroom door. On your way to work in the morning, you’ll be more inclined to pick up the gym bag and workout later in the evening.
  • If you want to read more books, keep a book on you at all times and place a selection of interesting books on your bed. You’ll be more inclined to read before you fall asleep.

Contrary to popular opinion, it’s the people with the most self-control that use it the least, because their environment makes it easier for them to preserve their willpower for when it’s needed the most.

Mistake No. 4: Failure to stay accountable

We tend to gravitate towards the pleasure of setting new goals and avoid the pain of taking action towards them.

Left alone to our own devices, we often get stuck in a deep cycle of procrastination where we constantly start new things and never finish.

Accountability is a powerful strategy to ensure that we escape the procrastination trap and face the pain of taking action.

For example, two years ago I publicly announced my goal of writing and publishing at least one article per week on MayoOshin.Com.

Even though I’d prefer not to write on most days, this public accountability has helped me to stick to the habit of writing each week, because I’d rather avoid the pain of disappointing the members of the newsletter, than the pleasure of procrastinating on writing.

Solution: As a general rule of thumb, the following equation is useful to think about your accountability method:

Pain of Inaction minus Pleasure of Procrastinating equals Action

In other words, the greater the pain of not taking action than the pleasure of procrastinating, the greater the likelihood you’ll take more action towards your goals.

The best accountability method for you will increase the pain of inaction beyond the threshold of pleasure.

Examples include: public announcements, paying people as punishment for inaction and signing up for memberships or coaching.

Mistake No. 5: Failure to create a feedback system

The first step to changing any habit is awareness of what we are doing. As the famous psychologist Carl Jung once said, “until you make the unconscious conscious, it will direct your life and you will call it fate.”

Despite this, we often make the mistake of creating goals without setting up a feedback system to track and measure our progress.

Not only does this prevent us from spotting valuable opportunities to make changes that will improve our odds of success, it also holds us back from celebrating or noticing our progress, leading to discouragement, self-doubt and giving up on our goals.

Solution: There are several ways you can measure and keep track of your progress.

For example, if you’re a data driven person you can keep an excel spreadsheet with visual graphs of your progress and keep a workout journal for workouts.

Another useful strategy is to use visual cues including putting coins in a jar and crossing off days on a calendar.

Mistake No. 6: Energy mismanagement

It’s hard enough starting a new habit, it’s ten times harder when you don’t have enough energy to take action on it.

For example,it’s much harder going to the gym three times a week when you’re constantly tired and exhausted from lack of sleep.

The key point here is that more times than not, we fail to stick to new habits because we don’t have enough energy to take action towards them.

Solution: I won’t spend much time talking about the importance of fundamentals for boosting energy—sleep, exercise and healthy eating—as I’m sure you’ve heard about them before.

That aside, other powerful strategies for boosting energy include solitude and managing your circadian rhythm.

Mistake No. 7: Short-term thinking

In general, there are only two types of people who set goals: short-term thinkers and long-term thinkers.

Short-term thinkers scheme and plan for quick wins, and the instant gratification of short-term results from their goals.

Long-term thinkers scheme and plan to make lifestyle changes that will produce rewards from their goals over the long run.

They create and improve their systems, and focus on changing their identity, instead of focusing on their goals.

The difference between the two may seem subtle, but the differences in results couldn’t be worlds apart.

Short-term thinkers are a lot more likely to jump ship and give up on their goals in the face of adversity and setbacks, than long-term thinkers.

As a result of this, over the long run, long-term thinkers—who may have struggled to make any progress at the start—achieve their goals, whilst short-term thinkers jump from one idea to another without finishing any one of them.

Solution: Building and sticking to new habits isn’t a short-term gig, it’s a long-term one.

The real question is: are you in this for the long run? Are you willing to stand by your habit come rain or shine, even possibly for the rest of your life?

The choice is yours to make.

Mayo Oshin writes at MayoOshin.Com, where he shares the best practical ideas based on proven science and the habits of highly successful people for stress-free productivity and improved mental performance. To get these strategies to stop procrastinating, get more things by doing less and improve your focus, join his free weekly newsletter.”

A version of this article originally appeared at mayooshin.com as “The 7 Common Mistakes that Cause New Habits to Fail (And How to Avoid Them).


Footnotes

  1. Norcross, John & J. Vangarelli, Dominic. (1988). The resolution solution: Longitudinal examination of New Year’s change attempts. Journal of Substance Abuse. 1. 127-134. 10.1016/S0899-3289(88)80016-6.
  2. 45 percent of Coca-Cola sales: Michael Moss, “Nudged to the Produce Aisle by a Look in the Mirror,” New York Times, August 27, 2013.
  3. Thank you James Clear for inspiring the title of this post.