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Break the Habit of Breaking Good Habits

By Steve Kane Updated on April 22nd, 2021

There are countless books, YouTube videos, and other media on topic of building good habits and breaking bad ones. So often the desire to change our ways comes light because of our realization that a problem exists. We learn and we find a better way. Unfortunately, we often sabotage our efforts by immediately abandoning the proven element of the better way we’ve recently discovered.

The only genuine knowledge is that of actual experience. So often new methods are discovered and put into practice only to be modified before gaining sufficient experience to truly understand what works and what doesn’t. Before long the new way of doing things is abandoned because the conclusion was formed that the new method didn’t work. We’re not always aware (or willing to admit) the new method works very well. We just didn’t work it well.


Conventional thinking is that habits begin to form after about 21 days of deliberate practice.  During this period, though, nothing feels right. The new way is, well, new. This might be exciting and fun for some people and uncomfortable for others. We’re so inexperienced with the new practice that we haven’t discovered the nuances of what works well and what doesn’t. It’s possible that we haven’t discovered possible failure modes of deviating from the nuanced details of the new method or practice.

Early on in a new practice, there isn’t enough baseline data, other than our emotional state, to tell us to change for the better. It isn’t realistic to suggest that we should base our decisions only on data and facts. Our brains don’t work that way. We make our decisions based on emotion. Hopefully, we’re relying on data, facts, and evidence to develop the emotional state that leads to good decision making. Oftentimes, the discomfort of new practices overrides data collection and analysis. It’s common for good new practices to fizzle out before getting past the discomfort of something new and awkward.

Take on a new way to counter a problem. Avoid changing (however slightly) a new practice or method that has been proven many times before by countless others. Simply do it the way that has been proven. Acknowledge the urge to make modifications, then let the urge go. Stick to the method the way it has been taught. Avoid breaking the habit of a good practice before it has the chance to become a habit.


Become proficient with the new method. Of course, this might be the question “How do I know I’m proficient?”

Think back to when you learned to drive a car, ride a bicycle, play a sport or musical instrument. There was a point at which you stopped thinking about the inputs. To use the driving example, you started by thinking about how much and how quickly to turn the steering wheel–how far to press the accelerator. It wasn’t long before your thinking shifted to getting to where you wanted to go and no longer needed to focus on your process inputs. This would be proficiency.

Gain experience with the newly found proficiency. Come to deeply understand what it is about your method or practice that is serving you and those around you. Also understand what isn’t serving you well.


The combination of proficiency and experience lead to expertise. Being an expert in a skill doesn’t mean you need to change the practice. It does, though, give the context to better evaluate whether change would be worthwhile.

Consider Shingo’s four reasons for change to help you decide whether to upset the apple cart. Those four reasons are easier, better, faster, cheaper (in that order). You’ve got a practice that is working. It might not be exiting or even interesting, but it is working. Do you really want to risk the benefits you gain from the practice? Perhaps you would if your change is intended to make your work easier, better, or faster. Cheaper is the natural result of better and faster. Better and faster often are the result of easier.

Make your change if you conclude your proposed change will get you closer to the results you want. Rely on your expertise, data, facts, and evidence to PDCA your way to an even better method.

Avoid the Pitfall of Premature Change

There is a simple strategy to prevent new practices from failing from the start. Agree with your team why a new practice is being introduced. Deeply understand the problem to be solved. Teach and discuss the new method before it is put into practice. Commit to yourself and to each other that the new practice will not be changed in any way for 30 days.

The 30 day period of daily practice helps us move beyond the emotional discomfort of learning something new. New practices become familiar after a month or so. Agree with the team that they’ll have the freedom to improve the new method once the initial 30-day period has elapsed so long as the initial problem doesn’t recur.

By this point the new practice is becoming a habit, proficiency has been gained, expertise is leading to PDCA, and the new practice continues.

  1. Pravin

    May 1, 2021 - 6:00 pm

    Practice and commitment is fundamental to develop new habit.

  2. Alen

    September 2, 2021 - 9:14 am

    Thank you for sharing this with us, Mr. Kane. Nice article.

    • Steve Kane

      September 2, 2021 - 9:47 am

      Thanks very much, Alen!

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