Monday, 6 September 2010

How to ensure good intentions are followed through

The road to hell is paved with good intentions.”

Most of our good intentions – whether carried through or not – don’t lead anywhere close to hell. They lead to emails never written, untidy desks or turning up late to appointments: minor things that are nothing more than an irritation to us and our colleagues. And then, for some reason, we get thoroughly fed up our unhelpful behaviour and resolve to change. But like Toad in Wind of the Willows our good intentions are genuine but short lived. We simply fail to follow up on answering all our emails/being punctual/tidy or whatever.

Change is a great deal more difficult to affect than we realise. Habits get ingrained and are not easy to change. That’s why so many New Year resolutions are made and religiously kept through the first couple of weeks of January then abandoned without another thought.

So how can we ensure that good intentions get followed through? In my eternal battles to conquer tidiness and clear my inbox, here are six of the best in making lasting change:

  1. Tackle one habit at a time. A list of resolutions isn’t really helpful to anything other than our ego. Start with the single habit that will make the most difference.
  2. Write down your goal and progress. When I was living without caffeine I had a spreadsheet that I logged each and every day I didn’t drink caffeine. It sounds a little over the top, but unless you have a reminder mechanism, you are unlikely to follow though.
  3. Tell other people what you are doing and enlist their help. Not just on day one, but a month or two into your change. Most of us don’t like to lose face in front of people we respect and so will work twice as hard to keep resolutions we’ve made public.
  4. Recognise it takes time to change. My experiments indicate that it takes at least 100 days to get a new habit established, and even then you can’t relax. You have to keep reminding yourself why the habit is important, and put the effort in to keep it going.
  5. Know why you are doing it. Any worthwhile change takes effort, so it’s important to understand how life will be better once you’ve established a new habit. Talk to other people to find out how they work – the more sure you are of yourself, the more likely you are to stick with it.
  6. Make a change that’s right for you. If you like to work late into the night, and start work late in the morning, you are unlikely to be successful in changing into an early riser. Figure out what you are trying to achieve, and then work within your preferences and abilities.
Human beings seem to be designed to strive and change things for the better. We are never quite satisfied with what we have, or how we work. But setting the same resolutions time after time is a soul destroying exercise – better to put more effort into what’s really important. Leave the long list of “wouldn’t it be nice if” resolutions until you've got the important ones licked.


  1. Good post Caroline and thanks for the checklist and words of wisdom and experience. Need to start scaling back that 'good intentions' list I think. Sometimes I get so carried away with the writing down I don't leave enough time and space for the following through :-)

  2. Hi Mary - thanks and great to hear from you. Cutting back on good intentions isn't easy - I'm habitually over-optimistic. Baby steps for all of us, huh? Hope all well in your world ...