Stop Unwanted Beliefs From Sabotaging Your Self-Improvement

Learn from Inc. columnist Joshua Spodek how two skills can help you to overcome those unwanted beliefs that get in the way of achieving your goals.

The following is a guest piece by Inc. columnist and NYU Adjunct Professor Joshua Spodek.

We’re approaching February and gyms are starting to empty as people drop their resolutions. Maybe you know the pattern: you felt so resolved in December to get fit, start a new venture, or whatever your resolution. For most of us, by Valentines Day that resolve has gone.

What happened?

We were positive we’d do it this time.

More importantly, what can we do about it?

First, some context. After reading my book, “Leadership Step by Step”, Tanveer noted how New Year’s Day leads people to think about self-improvement and suggested relating it to my chapters on unwanted beliefs and changing them. I love the topic, which is at the core of leading yourself, which helps you lead others.

Next, what do I mean by a belief and how can one be unwanted?

I’m not talking about religious beliefs. I mean the mental models your mind uses to simplify a complex world enough to keep us alive and, hopefully, happy.

You probably know that beliefs influence how you perceive. For example, you feel and react differently when you get jostled on the subway if you believe the person lost their balance versus believing they pushed you on purpose. As your beliefs change, so do your perceptions and reactions.

You and I can perceive the same thing but if we have different beliefs about it, we’ll feel different emotions, which will motivate us differently, so we’ll behave differently, leading the world to respond differently. For another example, imagine you had a pet pit bull growing up and found them adorable while one bit me as a child. If we were both in the same room with a pit bull, you might calmly go toward it and I might anxiously back away.

By unwanted, I mean a belief that contributes to emotions, motivations, or behaviors you don’t like. Believing everyone who jostles you on the subway is provoking a fight will make you angry a lot.

Alternatively, an unwanted belief can be one that makes you feel an emotion that feels good but creates a result you don’t want. For example, if you believe that no matter what you do, you’ll never get fit, you may feel comfortable not trying, but you may also give up on a resolution you could otherwise keep.

The challenge of unwanted beliefs is that we unconsciously suppress them—the opposite of self-awareness. We may not mean to, but when they make us feel emotions or face consequences we don’t like, part of our minds push them away.

The problems with being unaware of them is that they still affect us and we still act on them, just unconsciously. Then we can’t change them.

Okay, what can we do about unwanted beliefs?
In my book and courses, I walk people through the steps of developing effectively leadership skills, like a piano teacher walks you through how to play or a coach walks a team through running a play. Once you have the technique you improve by practicing. The more you practice, the more you improve your skills. Without practicing you don’t improve.

I recommend two skills to change unwanted beliefs that sabotage your improvement into effective ones that support it.

Skill 1: Raising Awareness
It’s hard to change what you don’t know about. I find it more effective to raise your awareness of beliefs in general than just one in particular.

Exercise 1: write your beliefs. For one week, carry pen and paper with you and when you notice a belief, write it down. At the end of the week, review them.

Most people start with obvious beliefs, like “eating healthy food makes me feel good.” By the end of the week they sense more subtle ones. When I first did the exercise, I thought I’d write five or ten. By the end of the week I wrote over 70 and was writing them faster. I had developed a new skill, raised my awareness, and increased my sensitivity to a mental activity I had been blind to.

Skill 2: Change Your Belief
Many people see beliefs as deep and unchangeable. Some are deep, but not all. They’re all changeable. I’m not suggesting changing the world, just your mental models of it.

Quoting my favorite example from my book:

Don’t think you can change your beliefs? Consider this situation. You wake up one morning to find you left the window open so it’s cold and you overslept so you don’t have enough time to get to an important meeting.

You jump out of bed. You figure skipping breakfast will save you ten minutes. You need to save more. This meeting is important. Being late could be disastrous. A long shower isn’t as important as this meeting so you tell yourself you’ll take as short a shower as you can. You turn on the water and jump in. Two minutes, tops! You’ll do what it takes to keep it short.

Then you feel the hot water… The cold goes away… It feels so good. You think to yourself, “I can relax a few minutes. I don’t have to take such a short shower.”

In an instant, your belief about the importance of the meeting relative to the shower reversed. You remember all the other meetings you arrived a few minutes late to and realized they weren’t that bad. Your beliefs and values change. They can reverse in an instant.

You can explain it how you want, but the change remains. If your mind can do it, your mind can do it. The next time you can do it deliberately.

A shower is a simple, short-term change, but we can also change complex, long-term beliefs too.

Exercise 2: change a belief. Pick one of the beliefs you wrote before and think of an alternative that’s plausible and might improve how you perceive things. If one belief you wrote was “no pain, no gain,” try “some gain comes without pain.” Or if you wrote, “my boss hates me,” try “my boss is short-tempered.”

You’ll be surprised how different the world starts to look with simple belief changes.

Doing the exercise on a small scale develops skills for bigger changes, like on December 31 for a whole year to follow. As with any skill, you improve with practice, practice, practice.

Resolutions, Behavior, and Beliefs
Most resolutions focus on changing behavior and ignore beliefs, forcing you to rely on willpower, which runs out. Abandoning a resolution because your willpower couldn’t overcome an unwanted belief often reinforces the belief – the opposite of your goal. It discourages you from trying again, which is a reason so many people feel, “I just can’t do X.”

On a recent podcast, the interviewer asked me which I felt was more effective, changing beliefs to change behavior or changing behavior to change beliefs.

My answer: change both!

I don’t care which direction works more because if I want to change myself in the long term, I do both. Why tie one arm behind my back? The exercises above build the skills resolutions leave out.

When you resolve to do something, on December 31 or any time, use both barrels: consciously change your beliefs and your behavior.

You might surprise yourself with how much more you can achieve.

Joshua Spodek is an Adjunct Professor at NYU, leadership coach and workshop leader for Columbia Business School, columnist for Inc., founder of Spodek Academy, and author of “Leadership Step by Step”. He holds five Ivy League degrees, including a PhD in Astrophysics and an MBA, and has been quoted and profiled by ABC, CBS, NBC, the New York Times, and the Wall Street Journal. To learn more about Joshua, visit his website at

(Photo credit: iStock)

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Tanveer Naseer is an award-winning and internationally-acclaimed leadership writer and keynote speaker. He is also the Principal and Founder of Tanveer Naseer Leadership, a leadership coaching firm that works with executives and managers to help them develop practical leadership and team-building competencies to guide organizational growth and development. Tanveer’s writings and insights on leadership and workplace interactions have been featured in a number of prominent media and organization publications, including Forbes, Fast Company, Inc Magazine, Canada’s national newspaper “The Globe and Mail”, The Economist Executive Education Navigator, and the Ritz-Carlton Leadership Center.

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