Do You Make These 4 Common Mistakes When Trying to Change?

We all make mistakes.

In fact, almost all of us will make the same four self-improvement mistakes.

This is for any program of self-improvement or self-development:

Starting at the gym . . .

Going back to school. . .

Trying to quit smoking. . .

Almost nothing is exempt from these mistakes.

(Because I’ve coached hundreds of college students and dozens of non-students, I’ve seen pretty much everything out there.)

In a few minutes, you’ll not only know what these four crucial mistakes are, you’ll also know how to avoid them.

So let’s start.


Taking on the whole world

You see the mouse and the ninja over on the right?

That’s the “Mouse-Ninja Scale”, a highly scientific instrument.

I’ll explain it in a minute.

First, let me share with you why too much motivation is actually a bad thing.

When people get too excited about big changes, they commit to huge programs. . . what I think of as “Ninja Sized Challenges.”

Because most people aren’t ninjas, they quickly give up.

“Who did I think I was kidding, losing 50 lbs? It’s never gonna happen.”

“Who did I think I was kidding, getting a college degree? That’s thousands of dollars I don’t have right now. Better just pick up extra shifts at work.”

What people don’t know is this: to succeed, you must do only the easiest things. . . and you must do them one thing at a time.

Success in life is built up via a series of tiny steps, not one giant leap.

Speaking of Armstrong’s first words on the moon: to get Armstrong there certainly took more than 100,000 individual steps. . . and each of them required the step just before it to be completed.

The secret of success is focus: take only the tiniest possible step you can towards your goal.

Then, focus on the very next step, and take that.

“One job at a time. Every job a success,” Peter Jackson said, when questioned how he achieved the incredible success of the Lord of the Rings trilogy.

The secret of success is focus.

That brings us back to the Mouse-Ninja Scale.

When I work with people, and we decide on the “tiny next step,” I always bring up the Mouse-Ninja Scale, and ask:

“Is this a step for a mouse or a ninja?

In other words, is it very easy, or very difficult?

If it’s so difficult you need a ninja to complete it, we make it smaller. . . and smaller again . . until it’s so easy, a mouse could do it.

(Sometimes I ask: “How likely are you to complete this step, actually, for real, percent out of 100?” And if they say they are anything less than 90% likely (ninja-level confidence), we make it smaller.)

That’s how you get to success.

(I am indebted to the Precision Nutrition coaching program for the Mouse-Ninja scale. I heartily recommend them for your body transformation needs.)

On to Mistake #2!


“Just try harder”

“Just try harder,” many well-intentioned self-help gurus say. “Develop your grit.”

In my experience, trying harder doesn’t work.

People sometimes believe that grit or willpower will get us to the changes we want.

Actually, human willpower is very limited.

Yes, it can be strengthened, but just like the physical body, it’s trivially easy to exhaust it . . . and after exhausted, it’s good-for-nothing for a few days.

(Although there is a willpower trick you can exploit to get very hard things done. . . I’ll share that in a minute.)

Have you ever tried to put together one of those Ikea chairs, where the round pegs don’t quite fit into the round holes?

Yeah, me too.

Self-improvement is a lot like the Ikea chair: when you force it, you break it.

Relying on self-control isn’t a good idea either.

We like to think that our rational, intellectual mind controls our lives, but our lives are actually controlled mostly by our habits and our emotions.

(In other words, mostly unconsciously.)

In this case, the elephant is stronger than the rider.

Your emotions and your habits are stronger than your willpower, self-control, and intellectual decision-making.

If you have chocolate in your house, you’re going to eat it . . . it’s only a matter of time.

Luckily, there is something that is stronger than the elephant.

And that is the path the elephant is walking on.

The path is the context of your life, such as: do you have any chocolate in your house?

I bet I know a foolproof way to prevent you from eating chocolate: throwing out all your chocolate.

(Yeah, you can always go to the store and buy more, but you’re also lazy: you’ll have to really, really want that chocolate.)

This is why people who succeed at self-improvement need to surround themselves with a context that supports what they’re trying to do:

. . . other people who are enrolled in school and facing the same challenges . . .

. . .other recovering alcoholics . . .

. . .running gear ready at the side of your bed every morning . . .

This is also why it’s so much easier to quit smoking on vacation: the context is different.

(Different context = different cues, different triggers, different people. All have an impact on behavior change.)

And this brings me to the willpower trick I mentioned earlier.

Do you know how it feels when you’ve just won some small (or big) victory?

Like, you just got approved for a raise, or got word of a promotion, or saved 15% on car insurance?

Typically, these wins cause a surge of energy, follow by a feel-good buzz that lasts a few minutes to a few hours.

When this happens to you next, it can be really effective to use that powerful energy to tackle the hardest thing on your to-do list . . . that thing you’ve been putting off for the last week.

You’ll have the willpower & happy energy to power right through it, and then it will be off your to-do list forever.

(I call this euphoria judo, and I use it all the time to crush my “don’t-wanna” list.)

Okay, let’s talk about Mistake #3!


Getting greedy for results

Okay, so you’ve gotten started on your behavior change, and you’ve had some quick wins.

Great. That’s exactly what we want to happen. Quick wins means you’re doing it right.

Beyond the quick wins is a long period where you get better and better, like this:

Eventually, though you’ll hit a plateau, and your forward progress will seem to stop.

I call this “the false summit” . . . but it’s the same concept as George Leonard’s “mastery curve”:

The mistake people make is that they get greedy for results; they want to continue getting better at the same rate.

But this isn’t how self-improvement works.

The rate of change of your improvement will often slow; and the better you get at something, the more effort it will take to reach that “next level” of mastery.

But true masters learn to love this process; they accept their plateaus as part of mastery.

They know that there is just one thing they must do in order to continue improving: fail to quit.

This is the part of the path where “grit” comes into play: when you’ve dedicated years of your life to your craft, and you’re already playing at the professional level.

That is when you shoot 100 free throws per practice. That is when you play the same difficult four bars of a song over and over again for an hour, to get it into your muscle-memory.

Grit isn’t for the start; it’s for the middle and the end.

Okay, let’s keep going.

The final mistake:


Information addiction

[caption id=”attachment_254" align=”alignright” width=”193"]

ultramarathon man dean karnazes[/caption]

On his 30th birthday, Dean Karnazes left his friends in the bar to drink themselves silly and went running in the dark. He did 30 miles that night.

Karnazes, who had been brought up running and mountain climbing, had all the information he needed to start a running habit that would soon make him the world’s most famous ultramarathoner. He later completed 50 marathons in 50 states in 50 days.

Most change needs very little information to get started.

At minimum, you need to know four things:

  1. What am I changing from? (I.e. what am I giving up?)
  2. What am I changing to? (i.e. what am I doing instead?)
  3. Why am I doing this? (What’s the personal reward for me, both immediately and in the future?)
  4. How am I going to make this change happen? (Short, simple plans work best.)

Information beyond that is as likely to hurt as help.

Yet the Internet tempts us to seek out more information. You can never have too much information, right?

Wrong. Too much information most often leads to “analysis paralysis” . . . and the failure to start.

In reality, the more we know, the more likely we are to find reasons to delay, or tweak, or “strategize” . . . in other words. . . not take action.

That’s why the best way to start a new habit or course of self improvement is to take action . . . and then learn from it.

And then keep taking action.

Taking your own actions gives you information you could never find on the Internet.

Putting It All Together:

Self Improvement in 4 Easy Steps

So let’s review.

Most of us could accomplish just about whatever we wanted, if we only became willing to. . .

. . . take small steps at the start. . . . . . . set a strong social context to guide us. . . . . . learn to love the process, and . . . . . . develop a prejudice for action.

That’s it!

I’d love to hear your stories of self-improvement in the comments (successful or unsuccessful).

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Originally published at FG.