Frustrated with Your Inability to Change? How a Simple Shift in Focus Can Make All the Difference

Imagine that a change you want to make is a thousand-pound boulder you’ve got to move.

You push with all your weight against it, and it doesn’t budge. Not an inch.

So you take a break, and try again.

It still doesn’t move. Try again; same result.

Eventually, you realize the boulder is not going to move, and you give up, feeling defeated and powerless.

Until you remember what Archimedes said: “Give me a lever long enough and a fulcrum on which to place it, and I shall move the world.”

It turns out that focusing on the lever, not the boulder, makes all the difference when it comes to making a real change in your life. But how exactly do you make this shift?

The Borrowed Business Concept that Helps with Habit Change

Boulders and levers sound more interesting than lag and lead measures, but really, that’s what we’re talking about here.

Managers in business understand the distinction between two types of performance indicators: a lag measure is something that you really want to change but that’s hard to influence, like the boulder in our story. A lead measure, on the other hand, is something you can change, and that although not the goal itself, has a direct and significant impact on the change you really want to make.

The names make sense: the lead measure is where the changes begin, upstream. The lag measure changes later, downstream, lagging behind. The lead is the lever, the lag is the boulder.

And the example they use in business books, oddly enough, is weight loss.

If you want to lose weight, your lag measure is the weight that the scale reports. But you can’t do anything to change your weight in the moment.

And so the lead measure most people use for the ultimate goal of losing weight is calories. Take in fewer and expend more — decisions you can make right now and throughout the day — and eventually, your weight will drop.

Of course, this is an obvious example; nobody I know sets out to lose weight simply by staring at the scale. We all know you’ve got to change something upstream in order to influence the number on the scale (or the way you look and feel, if you don’t care about the number).

But with other changes, it’s not so obvious: so often, we try to move a boulder without first finding a lever.

Do You Make the Mistake of Not Using a Lever?

Most of us know about setting goals, and even if you don’t do it with pen and paper, we all have changes we’d like to make. So even though we could stand to be more specific with our goals, it’s not the lag measure that’s usually the problem.

But how many people who want to drink less alcohol make “drink less” their only strategy?

The problem is that this isn’t as simple to influence as it looks: if you drink too much, it probably means that in the moment when you want to drink, you’re not good at choosing not to.

Certainly not everyone who drinks more than they’d like to is an alcoholic, but Alcoholics Anonymous works because it provides a better lead measure, one that is easier to influence than number of drinks: meetings attended.

So though our friend who drinks a little bit too much might not need that level of intervention, he can still learn from AA. He might hypothesize that if he meditates or exercises immediately after work, he can break his pattern of flipping on the TV and getting to work on the wrong kind of six-pack. In his case, “meditation sessions per week” or “workouts per week” might become his lead measure that provides the leverage for drinking less, the lag measure.

As another example, if you want to stop biting your nails — and I’ve been here — it’s easy to trick yourself into thinking that “Did I bite my nails today?” is itself a good lead measure. But again, the problem is that it requires willpower that’s hard for you to muster in the moment … otherwise you probably wouldn’t have the problem to begin with.

Could you instead focus on something further upstream, like “carry nail clippers in my pocket” or “use hand lotion every two hours” or “carry Band-Aids that I can use to cover a nail if I really want to bite it”?

You get the point, I hope. Find a lead measure that you can easily influence, without depending on a level of willpower you’ve never had before, that directly impacts the change you’re really trying to make.

But which lead measure?

It’s All About Finding the Right Lever

You know about Weight Watchers and their points system, right? “Points” is nothing but a simpler lead measure than calories, and its one that has turned out to be the right lever for millions of people.

So what other levers could you use to change habits?

  • If counting calories isn’t your thing, you could try losing weight by choosing “meals made at home” as your lead measure. Set a target, like “90 percent of meals,” and aim to get closer to it every week.
  • To start eating healthily, you could use “plant-based (or whole-food, or raw) until ___ o’clock” as your lead measure, and aim to hit that minimum every day.
  • With running, the lag measure might be your marathon time, but your lead measure could be workouts per week, total mileage per week, or percentage of training time spent on workouts instead of just easy miles. (You’re tracking your runs, right?)

These are just examples to get you started; you’ll need to figure out the right lever for the particular change you’d like to make. But I’m hoping that you’ll take from this article the idea that exists a perfect lever for moving your particular boulder; you just need to find it. As pitiful as your previous attempts to change may have been, that’s just because you’ve been trying to move the boulder with the wrong lever — or worse, by pushing against it with your own weight and no lever at all.

Of course, it’s going to take you a few tries to find exactly the right lever, but that’s how successful habit change works. It requires a commitment that you’ll keep trying until you find a way that works.

So if you’re stuck, change your lever. Choose a new lead measure — one that you have the power to influence (without much willpower) that in turn influences your goal, your lag measure.

Focus on the lead measure every day — track it somewhere, visibly and with help from someone else for accountability.

And pretty soon, you just might find that your lag measure, the goal you really care about, starts moving in the right direction.

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Comments

  1. Well that was a very great article. Awesome tools TY

  2. Hi Matt,
    You’ve offered some great insights here about reaching goals. I had never really thought about it in terms of lag vs. lead measures, or boulders vs. levers, but it makes perfect sense. I will definitely be sharing this!

  3. – so that’s why it’s been so hard… levers and boulders… the imagery helps no end
    – we stop, wipe our brows, dry our eyes and take a step back to think about it…
    …I’m still thinking…maybe that’s the boulder ?

  4. Thank you, Matt, for sharing this brilliant concept with us. It makes so much sense. I love the example you cite: of course, we never change our weight by staring at the number on the scale. Duh! I’m going to experiment and brainstorm about what might be some effective lead measures in the areas where I’d like to implement change in my life. And the great thing? It actually sounds like fun!

  5. This is just the kind of article I needed to read today, Matt. I have a couple of clients (and I do the same thing at times) who need to use the lead and lag measures. You really had some great ideas and I can’t wait to use them (giving you all the credit, of course). Have an amazing day!

  6. This is exactly what I needed today thanks for the great blog.

  7. Being accountable is key. My husband and I train doing calisthenics 3 days per week. Each week we increase the number of sets and/or reps. We get to see ourselves break thru previous set limits, and accomplish what our minds may have resisted. It’s a good feeling, and often, during my 4th set of more push-ups than I had done, it brings me to tears. So much comes from the mind trying to tell us we can’t do more, yet if we find the right voice, or perhaps have our levers in place, it gives us that extra oomph to keep pushing. That’s a great feeling. Everyone def. needs to find the levers that trigger that ‘I can do it’ response. Great work. ~Tracy

  8. Hey Matt, as usual your content is refreshing, you’ve guided me through lots of things through my personal change, ongoing, I have some insights myself on how to become less of a couch potato (http://www.zeraw2hero.com/#!Saying-goodbye-to-couch-potato-mode-or-A-new-YOU-Part-1/c112t/558a6c3d0cf298ff2bc919af ) which connects in many aspects to the goals system and such.

    a fresh blog, would love 2 c ya guys and get feedback, if you may.

    besta wishes
    Ofear

  9. teddybear says:

    This is great! Correlates with the conclusion I have reached after far too long, that you can’t just get rid of a habit. Not sustainably! You have to add new things into your life which push out the old habits. They have to be positive things, for example, I am hypothyroid and have no energy, so I would resort to eating a lot of sugar because it was easy energy. I started learning guitar and it takes up the time I’d normally have to aimlessly sit around eating sugar, without requiring a whole lot more energy. It’s a bit like feeding an elephant that will push your boulder for you I suppose!

    In fact I would go so far as to say that you have to gradually evolve the way you live, and be prepared to adjust your expectations and views. Because often what seems to be a small habit has a whole network of lifestyle problems underneath it…sometimes changing something bigger will take the small stuff with it. Just my thoughts!

    Thanks for a thought provoking article.

  10. Great stuff here, Matt. I was a Behavior Specialist for years – these are all such good, sound principles. Why is it so hard to apply them to myself? Your words of experience/wisdom are just what I need(ed to hear! Thanks.
    Keep up the great work.

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