Tom Bartow is an elite executive coach and sales trainer, and he's also my good friend. We've spent a lot of time together since 2011, giving a series of performance training seminars for financial advisors and sales executives, and now we're in the middle of writing our first book together.

Both of us come from the world of sports--Tom is a former college basketball coach, and I've helped numerous well-known professional athletes, world champions and Olympic gold medalists improve their mental training rituals.

A lot of what we see at the highest levels in both sports and business training matches up--both in positive and negative ways. Focused, driven high achievers do a lot of things well, but they can also drive themselves into a lot of trouble.

One of these common weaknesses is, interestingly enough, how they address weaknesses. They see something they want to change, and they jump in with both feet and a perfectionist mentality. The gung-ho approach seems like the right path at first, but it can be a recipe for discouragement if you don't manage it the right way.

This is a lesson anybody can learn and adapt for day-to-day life.

Think about the last time you decided to make some kind of wholesale change in your life.

Maybe you decided to get in shape or get organized or transition to another career. A big change like those requires a lot of different processes and steps, and it takes time.

One of my executive clients had one of the best performance records in his firm, but he felt like he was missing big opportunities every year because he had one or two inconsistent months.

He took some inventory, and decided that he wasn't reaching his potential because his energy level wasn't high enough, and he wasn't as organized as he could be at reaching out to clients.

He resolved that the next day, he'd get up at 5:30 and do a workout, and he would change his diet so that he didn't eat as much starch or sugar. At work, he committed to clearing his paperwork by noon every day, and by making 25 client calls per day, five days a week.

It takes self-awareness--and guts--to hold yourself accountable and make those kinds of efforts to improve, even if it's done in a misguided way.

My client had always heard that it takes 21 days to make a habit, so by the time the third and fourth week of this new regimen came along, he was hoping to feel a breakthrough--and for it to feel a lot less like torture.

It didn't happen.

It got harder and harder for him to keep waking up, and as he started to backslide from the goals he set for himself, he got more and more discouraged. After six weeks, he gave up and was back where he started.

That's when he and I got together.

I told him I respected what he was trying to do, but that he was setting the bar too high for himself.

He was shocked. Trying to make multiple changes at one time is asking for trouble.

Now, I wasn't suggesting to him that he shouldn't push himself to be great. I just told him that he should be working with the way we're wired, instead of fighting against it.

The way to make true and lasting change--to build a new habit--is to pick one piece of it and commit to making that one change.

Once you own that change and it has become second nature, then you can move to the next piece and swallow that one.

The whole 21-day myth comes from a misrepresentation of Dr. Maxwell Maltz' work he presented in the book Psycho-Cybernetics. In actuality, habits aren't so much formed as they are in a constant state of formation. This process becomes much easier when you follow a set of simple-but-crucial strategies.

Everybody knows about the honeymoon phase. When you decide to make a change, and you're in the gym for the first time, you're energized for the new adventure and exhilarated by the very real accomplishment of making the commitment to change and taking the first step.

But then comes what Tom and I call the "fight-thru." Pretty quickly after the honeymoon phase, the change starts to get hard. You have to get up to go to the gym when it's raining or cold, or when you'd rather be sleeping in.

The key to moving to the end phase of habit formation is to win two or three "fight-thrus." Here's how to do it:

  1. Make it a ritual. Pick that one thing you're changing and commit to doing it in the new way at the same time every day. Once it gets locked in on your schedule. it becomes almost automated, which takes some of the thinking out of the doing.
  2. Recognize what's happening. When you get into the fight-thru, call it out by telling yourself you're in it, you know it and you're going to win it. Each time you win a fight-thru, the next one becomes easier to win. And each time you lose, it becomes easier to give up on the next.
  3. Ask yourself two questions: How will I feel if succeed? How will I feel if I fail? Bring emotion into the equation. Let yourself feel the positive in winning the fight-thru and the negative in losing.

After you've established the change and built the new habit, you can pivot and take on the next individual challenge with the same process. You've also dramatically reduced the danger of succumbing to what I call the "discouragement monster"--a failure that sends you all the way back to zero.

They won't all be wins, but if you build on the right platform, you can quickly recover from a step back and prevent it from becoming a free-fall.