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Just do it: the tip of the habit change iceberg

How to set yourself up to start a new habit


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by Nicola Rankin in habits

Have you ever heard someone say that how to start a new habit is to “just do it”? They might say that the’ve done it themselves – “I just quit”, “I just started running everyday” that sort of thing? Makes it sound easy and effortless, kinda seductive really. It can also make you feel pretty bad if you haven’t been able to ‘just do it’.

But here’s the thing. Most – if not all – of the times when people have just done it, they have actually done a lot of prep work to make that possible. What do I mean by prep work? The work that gets us motivated to change, the planning that makes sure we can make the change, and the focus that ensures we’ll ‘just do it’ everyday.

The Tip of the Iceberg…and what lies beneath

Sometimes that work has just happened serendipitously, other times it’s been done very intentionally. A great example from my life recently of a habit that I seemed to ‘just do’ one day (and every day after), is flossing my teeth. I’d been intending to develop this habit for a number of years but I’d floss once or twice and then stop. One night I decided, ‘enough, I’ll just do it’. And magically I have flossed my teeth every night since. I was a bit surprised by this to say the least, so I had a good think about the back story, and it goes something like this:

  • About 6 months earlier, my dentist showed me pictures of my gums starting to recede and told me that if I didn’t start flossing it would get worse.
  • I happened to read a couple of articles on how important it was to floss and how great it felt to have super clean teeth.
  • A couple of people in my life that I respect told me that they flossed everyday because they believed in taking care of their teeth properly.
  • I put the floss on top of my toothbrush so that I would have to actually move it out of the way in order to brush my teeth (or, actually floss, which was the point).

Do you see what I mean? Yeah, on the day I ‘just did it’ but for months before hand my life was bringing up messages that pointed me in the direction of daily flossing. I got a scare from my dentist (consequences of not doing it). I got some messages about how much cleaner and fresher your mouth feels when you floss (positive motivation!). I got social proof from people I respect. And I interrupted my normal habit of just brushing my teeth without flossing.

All those things had to happen first in order for me to ‘just do it’ on the day that I did. Just doing it was the tip of the iceberg.

The trap that ‘just do it’ leads us into

The trouble with the message ‘just do it’ is that it could lead people to believe that’s all they need to do – just wake up one morning and decide to run everyday. Or quit smoking. Or eat healthy… or whatever – ‘just do it’. Then, when it only lasts a couple of days or weeks, it’s really easy feel we have failed and blame ourselves – “I must just be too lazy”, “I just don’t have the time to cook healthy foods”, “I’m just a smoker and always will be”. This is so counter productive – none of those things are ever true – but in telling ourselves those things, we dig ourselves deeper into the rut of not making the changes we need to make.

Do the ground work to start a new habit successfully

So, now we’re clear that there is some work to do before we ‘just’ make a change.

Do you want to wait for your life to send you the messages and circumstances that will mean you can wake up one morning and ‘just do it’? Or do you want to take an active role and bring about the change you’re trying to make in your life?

Waiting around can have serious consequences in our lives. If you’d like to make a more intentional change I’m about to start a blog series called “Habit Change 101”. This will walk you through, step by step, how to make a change that sticks.

Click here to sign up to Habit Change 101 – a step by step series that will teach you how to make changes that stick!

It’s totally FREE!


In the meantime, you can start by focusing on the change you want to make – not doing it, just focussing – look for role models that inspire you, read motivational books from people who have made the change you want to make, that sort of thing. The harder you think the change is going to be for you, the more effort you should put into this phase.

N.B. Nike’s “Just Do It” is a great moto – for when you have put in the work to create a healthy habit and you just need to, well, do it 🙂 And I think this is their intention. This post was prompted by talking to people who have felt failure due to feeling like they couldn’t ‘just do it’.

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