How to Overcome Barriers to Change & Achieve Your Goals

What does overcoming barriers to change look like? How can you avoid pitfalls when setting new goals for yourself?

Overcoming barriers to change means working against procrastination, instant gratification, forgetfulness, and lack of focus. If you learn how to define and deal with these barriers, you’ll be closer to achieving your goals.

Read on to learn how to overcome common barriers to change.

Overcome Common Barriers to Change

Overcoming barriers to change means taking on our tendency to seek instant gratification, our laziness and procrastination, and the all-too-common experience of forgetting about our good intentions. Here, we’ll present advice for overcoming these challenges within yourself—as well as how you can help others to do the same.

(Shortform note: In reading through the following sections, note that these aspects of human nature are framed as problems to be solved. Since how we frame things influences our choices and our emotions, consider an alternative framing from Stoicism—view these things as opportunities to be learned from. This can reduce frustration as you’ll see yourself not as riddled with flaws to fix but as ripe with opportunities to grow.)

Barrier #1: Instinctively Seeking Pleasure

First, let’s look at the one obstacle to change that underlies most others: The human tendency to seek instant gratification. We instinctively want immediately gratifying experiences and thus favor behaviors that produce present-moment pleasure over those that would benefit us in the long run. We impulsively overeat, overconsume media, have just one more drink, or scroll just another minute. This tendency is a scientifically established feature of human nature—scientists call it “present bias.”

(Shortform note: To get a direct sense of how present bias works, we can look to how businesses make use of it in their products. In Hooked, Nir Eyal explains how designers build variable rewards (unpredictable pleasures) into their products so that people form habits of using them. Think of Facebook: When you open the app, your feed presents you with a selection of novel, unpredictable content that keeps you scrolling and coming back. Each upward swipe of your finger might produce another reward, and that’s all it takes to form a habit loop and get habituated to the product.) 

Often, this instinct to seek pleasure stands in the way of positive behavioral change. Experts typically advise that you can overcome it with willpower—that is, by pushing through the urge to do what feels good now and instead performing a healthier behavior (such as passing on the sugar-laden coffee and instead hitting the gym). However, to overcome our pleasure-seeking nature, we can’t rely on willpower alone. This is because we’re prone to another cognitive bias: We’re too confident in our future selves, and we thereby overestimate how effective our willpower is. 

In other words, we tend to assume that we’ll be able to overcome our pleasure-seeking impulses when the moment arises—but research shows that we most often don’t, such that this confidence is misplaced. For instance, when you’re planning a habit change, it’s easy to assume that you’ll manage to roll out of bed at 6 a.m. and go for a run. But in reality, you probably won’t (at least not so easily), and your future self will probably give in to the siren song of the snooze button.

(Shortform note: While we’re all prone to cognitive biases, we can also learn to recognize them and prevent them from worsening our decisions. This starts with awareness: Learn about a bias, and then practice recognizing it. For instance, you might sit down to plan a new habit and keep an eye out for overly optimistic appraisals of what you can do. Then, you can use a variety of thinking strategies—such as taking an outside view or using probabilities to logically assess possible outcomes—to make better decisions.)

Because you need more than just willpower, we’ll describe two additional strategies in the following sections—pairing temptations with good habits and gamifying your behavior changes.

(Shortform note: In Mastery, George Leonard takes a different stance on willpower. Whereas Milkman emphasizes our habitual overestimation of our future willpower, Leonard explains that we often misunderstand how to use our willpower. Instead of forcing yourself through some change, he says, you need to use willpower to gently yet firmly push, stretch, and grow at your edges. Willpower isn’t perfect, but it’s still an important tool in our kits.)

To solve the problem of our instinct for instant gratification, you can use your pleasure-seeking nature to your advantage by making a positive change feel more gratifying. In practice, this means using something you find pleasurable—like watching TV or gaming—as motivation to practice a good habit. 

For instance, you could enjoy a few TikTok videos while you brush your teeth, or practice deep breathing while you play your favorite video game. The key is to weave together the pleasurable activity with the new habit. In time, you’ll end up craving the habit because it also represents your chance to enjoy that temptation. 

(Shortform note: To further enhance the effect of a rewarding temptation, try varying the temptation. Research has found that variable reward systems reinforce habits more effectively than one consistent, predictable reward. So you might mix it up a bit by pairing a different pleasure each day or week with your positive behavior change. To keep it unpredictable, you could assign a different pleasure to each side of a six-sided die, and then roll the die each day to decide which you’ll get to experience.) 

Motivate Yourself With Gamification

Another strategy is to gamify the hard-but-beneficial behaviors you want to perform. Gamification involves adding motivating, engaging features to a task, such as integrating badges, bonuses, a level-up system, and leaderboards with, say, your weightlifting habit. Each time you go to the gym, you’d earn points toward an upgrade or a level-up, and you might track your progress on a leaderboard with friends or fellow gym-goers.

Crucially, gamification requires that you buy into the game—if you feel it’s contrived or forced, it won’t work. Research has found that poorly implemented gamification systems can actually lower performance at work. 

(Shortform note: Successfully gamifying your company’s work can have huge benefits—but doing so requires finesse. According to Yu-Kai Chou (Actionable Gamification), companies often create gamification systems that backfire. He argues that this is because companies fail to properly diversify and balance the motivating aspects of these systems. In other words, businesses often mistakenly feel that leaderboards and bonus systems are enough—when in reality, effective gamification systems involve complex features including community structures, mystery rewards and randomization, and opportunities for players to be creative and establish unique identities within the framework of the game.)

Barrier #2: Avoiding the Effort

Keeping in mind the human tendency to seek instant gratification, we turn next to procrastination—a common way that we avoid hard things in favor of an easier present.

Overcoming procrastination by placing constraints on yourself that will penalize you if you continue to avoid important tasks or behavior change efforts. In other words, you can commit to follow through on your good intentions and devise a personal cost that you’ll pay if you fail. You can make “hard” or “soft” commitments:

  • Hard commitments use serious, often material penalties, such as losing money. You can use services that hold you accountable to these costs.
  • Soft commitments involve less serious penalties, such as the psychological cost of breaking a promise to yourself or an accountability partner. 

As a rule of thumb, the harder a commitment is, the more effectively it’ll prevent procrastination. This is because we find it easier to pay psychological costs, such as guilt or shame, than material costs, like $1,000 cash.

Barrier #3: Lacking the Energy

Sibling to procrastination is the simple fact that we often lack the energy or motivation to make positive behavioral changes. This is human nature: We’re wired to find the easiest way forward, and, in the modern world, this often means that we avoid doing effortful things that are good for us.

Much like using your pleasure-seeking nature to your advantage, you can also try leveraging laziness. Specifically, if we can make good behaviors our default choices—our paths of least resistance—then our instinct to coast will help us improve.

To do this requires that you create and automate new habits. You can do this fast by drilling the behavior you want to perform each day, sticking to it until it becomes your default. To reinforce the habit, reward yourself immediately after performing the new behavior. For instance, you might train yourself to go for a morning walk by committing to do so each day at 8 a.m. and ending each walk with a fresh coffee made to your tastes.

How to Overcome Barriers to Change & Achieve Your Goals

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Like what you just read? Read the rest of the world's best book summary and analysis of Katy Milkman's "How to Change" at Shortform.

Here's what you'll find in our full How to Change summary:

  • An evidence-based approach to creating lasting change
  • How to overcome common human failings, such as procrastination
  • When the best time to enact changes in your life is

Becca King

Becca’s love for reading began with mysteries and historical fiction, and it grew into a love for nonfiction history and more. Becca studied journalism as a graduate student at Ohio University while getting their feet wet writing at local newspapers, and now enjoys blogging about all things nonfiction, from science to history to practical advice for daily living.

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