Getting Unstuck from Bad Habits

Nov 2, 2023 | Coaching, Humanizing Medicine

Why are no-so-helpful habits so frustratingly hard to kick??? And I’m not even talking about those deeper-seated habits called addictions. I’m talking about the small micro-actions we take each day. When we hit the snooze button one time too many and have to sprint at breakneck speed to make up for it. When we move our phone back to the bedside table after swearing off screens in bed. When we go down a social media rabbit hole at “lunch,” knowing we’d be better off finishing those admin tasks before the afternoon onslaught.

The challenge of changing a habit was brought home two weeks ago when I went surfing in Costa Rica. As I shared previously, I am a newbie at surfing (only 3 times in my life before this trip) and will never be a “surfer,” but I LOVE surfing. I got up on the board the first time I tried and, like a gambler with an early big win, I was hooked.

I’ve learned different techniques for the “pop up” from the various instructors I’ve had. It seems a common suggestion for beginners is the three-step method. From lying on the board, you straighten your arms to a push-up position, swing your back foot underneath you with your toes pointing to the side, then bring your front foot around to be parallel to your back foot. After practicing on the sand for a while, you try it on the board.

Unfortunately, while I can get up fairly easily, I’ve developed a bad habit in technique that is holding me back. Perhaps due to arm or core weakness, I push up to a kneeling position, then move into a standing position. This maneuver works (kinda) but takes much longer to get upright, meaning less control of the board.

Here’s where the frustrating part comes in. I spent two lessons this vacation trying—and failing—to push up correctly. I knew what to do, I practiced on shore, but when faced with a board moving on a wave, I fell back into habit. “This time,” I’d say to myself as a breaker approached, “Remember, foot not knee.” It never worked. My body went for the familiar, the well-worn groove, every time.

On my last ride of the vacation, I navigated the board all the way to shore after another poor-technique pop up. It was a satisfying yet humbling end. My thoughts and good intentions weren’t enough to change an ingrained habit. 

James Clear writes in Atomic Habits: An Easy and Proven Way to Build Good Habits & Break Bad ones, “If you want to master a habit, the key is to start with repetition, not perfection.” I need practice and the freedom to experiment: training videos, on-land repetition, and regular yoga sessions to create the muscle memory so I can execute the pop up in a more effective way.

I see a similar pattern in my coaching work. Physicians come to me with lives that are not working–they are exhausted, frustrated, or facing burnout. Often, they have mental habits or thought patterns that get in the way of being more effective, satisfied, balanced. 

On their own, their thoughts and good intentions aren’t enough to find better choices–frequently because they believe that a perfect fix is required and are overwhelmed by the prospect. By holding a safe space and the structure for coaching conversations, I help them experiment and find what works better.

What’s the habit you’d like to kick? If resetting your “muscle memory” isn’t cutting it on your own and change feels daunting, raise your hand. Don’t keep suffering. If you’d like some ideas, or just like to chat, please reach out.


Diane W. Shannon


Diane Shannon is an award-winning writer, author, and coach. Since leaving practice as a primary care physician due to burnout, she has worked to support physicians in achieving their personal and professional goals and to highlight the changes needed to reduce burnout, improve career satisfaction, and protect the bidirectional healing power of the patient-physician relationship.

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Diane W. Shannon, MD, MPH, PCC

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