"I am the captain of my fate, I am the master of my destiny" wrote Henry Ford. You may not hanker after his fame or even his fortune, but to have made a difference? Wouldn't we all like to leave a wake behind us?

To steer our ship we must have a destination and an idea of how to get there. You will have heard about setting goals and breaking them up into objectives. If the objectives are too big, we are to break them up into tasks.

Theory says if you plan every step then take each step, you will eventually reach your goal. You just put one foot in front of the other. No matter how small each step, it takes you closer to accomplishing what you set out to.

The problem lies not in knowing how, nor in obstacles set in our path. Sometimes ones feet become rooted among the obstacles we set out to cross. Samuel Johnson put it thus, "The chains of habit are too weak to be felt until they are too strong to be broken." We need a greater force than thought and imagination to break the chains of habit.

About a dozen years ago I gave up smoking. As stories go it lacks drama but illustrates both the substance and illusionary nature of the rocks. Like many would be non-smokers I had faced the rocks of this particular trail many times. Speaking from experience, one of the challenges stemmed from the size of the ‘giving up smoking’ rocks. They are so small. They are more like scree on a steep slope. The likelihood of backsliding makes one loath to announce the effort.

This time it IS different. How many times have you heard that before, or even said it to yourself as you clamber over the first of your most daunting boulders?

When I finally gave up smoking in 1998, it really was different. There weren't any boulders or even scree! Now I can see that There never were any rocks in the first place. The obstacles to giving up smoking are roughly similar to changing any habit that we have allowed to become established. None of them have any real substance and anyone who doesn’t share your habit will tell you so.

Lets consider some habits that appear less damaging than smoking. Many people grapple with eating and drinking sensibly. These days most people in western society eat and drink for pleasure rather than to stay alive. Putting yourself in charge of what goes in, or comes out, of your mouth is more difficult than it sounds.

Don’t you always know when you are consuming too much of something? Don’t you almost always know when you are saying the wrong thing?

The most common and recognisable habit involves breaking commitments to our self. One sure way of avoiding the associated guilt and stress is to avoid making any commitments at all. I envy people who are satisfied with this. Some people feel no need to put their hand on the tiller and are happy to go were fortune and others take them. Most of the people I know want more life in their lives, in one form or another.

Suppose that you could completely eradicate the habit of breaking commitments you make to yourself. What could you accomplish? What would you decide to do? The possibilities would be almost unlimited. Nothing short of ceasing to live could stop you accomplishing almost anything you set out too.

Let’s consider the things that stand in our way. What causes us to fail ourselves by not doing what we decide to do? Imagine that you have decided to work out three times a week for at least thirty minutes. You kept to your commitment for a couple of weeks but now you have let things slip and you are struggling to meet your commitment even once a week. What went wrong?

The thought that it might be unpleasant?
It was too hard to protect a long enough time slot?
Other tasks became more urgent?
Other tasks became more interesting?
Other people used up the time allocated?
Fear of failure elsewhere?

You can probably find other ways to express the excuses we make for ourselves, but one thing should be clear from thinking about this: None of these reasons have intrinsic substance. The obstacles that keep us from meeting commitments too ourselves are born and powered by ideas in our own minds.

Who is truly master, our intellect or our automatic response system?

Much of what we are, say, and do is automatic, based on the emotion attached to our memories. We cannot take full conscious control. If we could, we might forget to breathe. If this is true, how is it possible to choose and behave as one intends? It all depends on how we remember what happens to us.

The way we record events is automatic. The memory has to be there before we can think about it. What we think about an event in the past changes the flavour of the memory. We can reinforce the feelings that went with it or begin to change them. With a little effort we can change how we remember any event.

The real value of thought is not as a means of self-control but as a method of adjusting our automatic response to what happens to us. How we experience moments of decision and therefore how we decide, depends on how we remember the consequences of similar decisions.

If you are struggling to meet your commitments to yourself, examine those memories that support your resolve and those that resist it. Examine your values, convictions and beliefs to recognise how they support or undermine promises you make to yourself.

Sometimes the choice is between overturning deeply held values or abandoning a commitment. Sometimes it is simply a matter of perceiving the same thing differently.

Freedom has always been important to me. It is a deeply held value for many in our society. My smoking habit had a lot to do with defending my freedom. It took me several months to throw the switch and connect freedom to not smoking. Now I don’t have to furtively hide my smoking from my children. Instead of scuttling off to the garden or my study for a smoke, I can relax in any room of my house. ‘No Smoking’ signs have ceased to be an irritation. I am free to enjoy all the places barred to smokers. I am free from the prison of my habit. Once I changed the circuit and connected freedom with not smoking, the obstacles disappeared.

Author's Bio: 

Clive Miller is the author of of over twenty training courses covering a range of communication, management, and leadership topics as well as specialist sales skills and methods. He has written hundreds of articles and guides for sales leaders and designed templates and tools that are widely used to increase sales productivity, consistency, and results. More than 100,000 words addressing a panoply of leadership, communication, and sales challenges are freely accessible at www.salessense.co.uk.

Following a sales and sales management career in the IT industry spanning two decades, he founded SalesSense in 1996 to build a new career helping individuals, companies, and organisations increase performance through the development of better methods and practices and by helping people improve skills and habits.

More on public speaking, writing, and leadership at www.clivemiller.com