4 steps to building better habits (without giving up)

written by Philip Stefanov  |  NOVEMBER 15, 2022

Most people want to lead better lives: regular exercise, healthy nutrition, plenty of sleep, less stress, and all that.

Unfortunately, despite these desires, few people manage to make lasting changes, even after making some initial progress.

But why is that, and what can we do to boost our chances of success?

The Invisible Force Holding Us Back

Life is a constant struggle between doing what feels pleasant at the moment and setting aside desires for long-term benefits. A notable example is fitness, where we have to do things that don’t always feel good at the moment (e.g., healthy eating) for long-term benefits (e.g., good health and vitality).

Each time you attempt to make a positive change, there is friction between who you are and who you want to be. Despite your best intentions, your body resists change and seeks what’s familiar.

We have good intentions but fail to make positive changes because planning is easy; doing the actual work isn’t. Think about it for a moment:

How often do you hand off tasks to your future self?

  • I’ll do that project tomorrow.
  • I’ll wake up early and have a workout on Monday.
  • I’ll start my new diet on the first of next month.

These promises we make to ourselves feel good because they give us something to look forward to. Even if we aren’t in a good place now, we know we’ll do that project tomorrow, wake up early for a morning session on Monday, and finally start that diet next month.

Unfortunately, we find an excuse when the time comes because our earlier enthusiasm is no longer around. Remember: it feels good to make plans, but doing the work is another matter.

In some cases, we know that now is not the time to do something, so we take the same principle but use it for the magical point in the future called someday:

  • I’ll get fit when the kids start school.
  • I’ll start saving money when I pay off my car lease.
  • I’ll start a diet if I get too overweight.

Unfortunately, someday never comes, and people stay stuck, never achieving their goals.

How to Stop Procrastinating And Start Taking Action

1. Start Immediately

One of the biggest mistakes we all make when trying to establish better habits is putting it off for later. Doing so feels good and gives us something to look forward to, but it also sets us up for failure.

Instead of starting tomorrow, Monday, or the first of next month, begin immediately.

For example, if you want to start exercising, get dressed and drive to the gym; if you want to eat better, go to the grocery store and buy whole foods; if you’re interested in reading more, take that book you’ve been putting off forever and start reading.

2. Set Small Goals

The next step to beating procrastination is to set small and achievable goals that will encourage you to keep going when you don’t feel like it.

For example, let’s say you want to lose weight, and your ultimate goal is 40 lbs. It sounds great, but there’s a problem:

Knowing that you have to lose 40 lbs is daunting and can sap your motivation. Instead, you should break up that huge objective into manageable pieces––for example, set a goal to lose 5 or 10 lbs.

That way, you can work toward the bigger goal while racking up multiple small wins that will keep you motivated.

3. Focus on What Will Get You Closer to Your Goal

You’ve started taking action and have a bite-sized goal you can achieve within a few weeks. That’s a great start.

The next step is to think about what daily actions you need to take to get closer to your objective. In the case of weight loss, it might be:

  • Walk 4,000 steps
  • Eat 2,500 calories
  • Get at least seven hours of sleep

When it comes to weight training and other things you might not do every day, get concrete on three key things: 

  • When will you do something?
  • Where will you do it?
  • What exactly will you do?

For example:

“I will work out on Monday, Wednesday, and Friday (when) at my local gym (where), doing full-body weight training (what).”

4. Have a Deadline

Having a deadline is essential for taking action and reaching goals. Parkinson's law states: "Work expands to fill the time available for its completion."

In other words, tasks generally take as much time as we set aside for them. The more time you have for something, the higher the risk of procrastination. If you’ve ever had to complete a 30-day project the night before the deadline, you understand how true that can be.

Not having a deadline is even worse because it’s easy to lose track of what you initially set out to do and fall back into old patterns.

Of course, that doesn’t mean you can set unreasonably short deadlines and expect to be successful. You need to be realistic and reasonable with yourself.

Thank you for taking the time. Until next week,


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