Why Ditching Your Friends Might Be the Only Way to Make New Habits Stick

Being surrounded by the wrong people can be the biggest obstacle to making lasting change

Karla Starr
Published in
7 min readFeb 16, 2022


Photo by Markus Spiske on Unsplash

Years ago, I decided to turn myself into a science experiment and see how much I could improve my physical fitness in one year. I was spending hours a day at the gym, hired a trainer and a nutrition coach. For the most part, I felt pretty good.

One night, I went to a meetup for science writers in New York and was talking to a friend for a while before I took off my sweater, revealing my arms for the first time to him since I’d started seriously lifting weights. “What the hell?” he exclaimed. “BRO, DO YOU EVEN LIFT?” he repeated, loudly. (This guy now writes for The New Yorker.)

Months later, I was visiting an old high school friend in Chicago. After a few drinks, he leaned in to tell me something. “I’m sorry to tell you this, but men don’t find those muscles attractive.”

“No, I know guys at the gym who do,” I said.

“Well, I’m sure they’d say that to your face. But I’m telling you the truth — what guys say when they’re with each other. Trust me, I know.” Spoiler alert: he didn’t. We often mistake our knowledge for fact because we don’t realize when we’re in an echo chamber.

Even when the experts all agree, they may well be mistaken. -Bertrand Russell

Donella Meadows, one of the founders of systems thinking, wrote a brilliant essay on how to intervene in a system — the best places to make changes for complex problems. In short, you can’t just snuff out a problem where you can see it: you have to go upstream.

The trick is to figure out where things are going wrong. Too often, people impose changes at the top, and think that the change will magically trickle down.

In the past, I’ve tried making changes like:

  • Getting up earlier so I’d start working out, or taking a side project seriously



Karla Starr
Writer for

Speaker & author x2, inc. Making Numbers Count (w/ Chip Heath). Behavioral science, cultural history, numbers.