The first principle is that you must not fool yourself—and you are the easiest person to fool.

— Richard Feynman

In familiar situations, we behave predictably.

We follow roughly the same path through the grocery store each time we visit (usually turning right as soon as we enter the store). We brush our teeth in the same way each morning and night and drive to work along the same well-worn route. We’re creatures of habit, and familiar cues tend to elicit familiar patterns of behavior.

But what about when we want to make a change? We tend to make vague commitments and hope that they’re enough:

  • "I'm going to go to bed earlier tonight."
  • "Tomorrow, I'm going to eat healthier."
  • "It's 9 pm and I'm still at work. Next time, I'm going to start earlier on this report."

Here’s the thing: unless we get specific about what exactly we’re going to do differently next time, we’re fooling ourselves. We must get specific. What specific, granular, physical action will we take, and when?

  • "I'm going to set my phone alarm to remind me to start getting ready for bed at 9:30 tonight so I can be in bed at 10:00."
  • "Tomorrow, I'm going to eat oatmeal for breakfast and mixed nuts as a mid-morning snack. The oatmeal is on the kitchen counter and the nuts are in my work bag."
  • "I've broken down next month's report into sections and told a colleague to expect me to send her one section a day in the week before the full report is due."

Habits are like deep ruts in a old country road. Our wheels want to find the ruts, and “it’s going to be different this time” isn’t enough to pull us out onto the high ground. But if we get specific, we have a chance.