July 23, 2020

Planning for Barriers

Barriers to change are inevitable, so how do you plan for them?

When making any changes in your life, whether that be a single habit or a series of bigger changes, you’re almost certain to encounter resistance, or barriers, which stop you succeeding in your goal. One study estimated that smokers take an average of 19.6 attempts before they successfully quit (defined as 1 year without smoking). Behaviour change is simple, but not easy.

As a result, it’s important to plan for these barriers, as they are almost certain to occur. Research has broken this down into two distinct parts:

Action Planning - This is about planning the change itself - what you will do, when and where you will do it:

“I will meditate for 10 minutes after my gym session in the stretching area before I head to the showers.”

Coping Planning - You’ll inevitably encounter resistance to the change you want to make, so planning for it and thinking through solutions can be really helpful. For example:

“If I want to go to the gym but feel tired, I will not let myself sit down, but will pick up my gear bag and go straight to the gym at once”.

Action planning is more useful when starting your new habit or goal, and is very important. However, coping plans are very important later in the process, when you’re trying to make it into a permanent change.

How to build a Coping Plan

Much like planning your actions and habits, being specific in your plan is very important.

The first thing is to write out a list of barriers that you think you might face.

For example, I want to get up earlier, so a list of barriers for me would look like this:

  • Turning off the alarm and falling back to sleep immediately.
  • Forgetting to set the alarm in the first place.
  • Going to bed too late or not going at a consistent time.

I know that these are barriers I will face, and so by planning ahead for them, I can increase my chances of overcoming them.

Using James Clear’s styling for setting habits, a simple formula for writing your coping plan might look like this:

When I [barrier I encounter] occurs, I will [action]


To stop [barrier I encounter], I will [action]

Putting the above barriers into these formulae gives me:

  • To stop falling back to sleep immediately, I will put my phone far from the bed.
  • To stop forgetting to set the alarm in the first place, I will set the alarm to repeat every day.
  • To stop saying up late, I will set an alarm for bedtime
  • When my alarm for bedtime goes off, I will turn off the TV immediately and go brush my teeth.

Remember that the barriers may not always be internal - if you’re trying to lose weight, saying no to that take-away with your family/partner may be a barrier you need to overcome. Thinking through coping techniques for those scenarios is also very important (try this book for tips!).

Barriers and resistance to change will always occur, but some thought and planning about what these barriers are and how to overcome them could make the difference between succeeding and not. I’ve built my own app to allow people to plan for these barriers as part of setting goals - even writing this has given me some ideas for changes and improvement within the app.