“Habit is habit, and not to be flung out of the window by any man, but coaxed down the stairs a step at a time.” – Mark Twain
As one who makes his living helping individuals and organizations create change, I have had to learn a thing or two about what drives habitual behavior and how to change it. Throughout my career, I have written and spoken a great deal about how perception and thought drives behavior (more on this in ‘Myths Tend to Distract Us‘ and ‘How Stories Determine Outcomes’).
Today I’d like to focus simply on the emotional and behavioral aspects of creating change–or changing habitual behavior.
There are six basic steps to developing a new habit.
1. You must desire change.
While change is a necessary part of growth and death, there are two main drivers that compel most of us to want to change. Either we really have to feel a great disdain, pain, or discomfort with some aspect of our lives, or, we must have such a strong desire for something we want, but don’t have, that the absence creates emotional pain or discomfort. In other words, most human beings need to feel compelled in order to do what it takes to change their ways. This implies that we need to also believe that the outcome we want is possible. If we don’t think it’s possible, we won’t be compelled to do what it takes to make it happen. (How hard would you work at trying to hit a baseball if you didn’t think you could possibly hit it?)
2. You have to carefully and correctly analyze what you need to change.
As human beings, we have a tendency to lie to ourselves about ourselves. We are especially vulnerable to this tendency when the matter is something we really don’t want to admit to ourselves. I’ll paraphrase a sentence from a conversation I had with my friend, Psychoanalyst Curtis Bristol, about a year ago. Denial, once revealed, can become very empowering. Bring a heightened awareness to your consideration of what you need to change; our propensity is to consider ourselves while in denial of what we don’t want to see (which is often the very thing that needs to change). Don’t let denial win the day, open your eyes to what needs to change. In this step it is usually quite helpful to ask either close friends or behavioral experts, to weigh in on whether you’ve correctly identified the habitual thinking or behavior that really needs to change in order for you to get what you want.
3. You must be consistent in your approach.
It has taken your whole life for you to become the person you are today. If you want to effect a major change in a particular behavior pattern, it will take a sincere and concentrated effort. (More about our capacity to get in our own way). Just as a smoker cannot expect to break the habit by giving up an occasional cigarette, you cannot expect to see compelling results by occasionally improving one or two aspects of what you want to improve, whether it is communication skills, dieting or exercise. Don’t get frustrated by the immensity of the task…remember that your life is built in a series of moments. As Blythe said, “The most important things in the world is always what a man is doing at this moment.”
4. Keep your approach consistent with your personality.
Years ago, one of my brothers decided that he didn’t like the extra pounds he was putting on, and he wanted to be more physically fit. He decided that he would start lifting weights in the basement alone every day. He was fairly successful with this approach for about one week, all the while telling everyone how great he felt, and how everyone else should exercise regularly as well. Soon enough, however, days would pass between workouts. He found many reasons to justify his inability to keep his commitment. His desire for change was just as strong, and he was still unhappy with his physical condition, yet he couldn’t seem to get himself to keep his promise to work out every day.
The problem my brother faced was that his solution (lifting weights alone in the basement) was not consistent with his personality. He has always had a propensity for doing things with a group, not in solitude. Once he realized this, he decided he might have better luck playing racquetball a few times a week with his friends. Once he adjusted his solution to match his personality, he was able to keep his commitment on the regular basis that was required for him to reach his goals.
When you consider your approach to creating or breaking a habit, be sure to factor in your personality.
5. You must have patience.
If you’re the type of person who needs to see immediate results in order to see the project through to the end, I recommend that you set “mini-goals” to reach along the way. Rather than dreaming of the day when you will have completely broken the old habits, focus your efforts on one day, one hour, or one opportunity at a time. It’s OK to celebrate each victory along the way, as long as you remember that it is just one battle in a long war. And of course, do not use these victories as an excuse to justify letting the next opportunity slip by, or to stray off course. (Like celebrating losing 5 pounds with a hot fudge sundae!)
6. Analyze past obstacles.
Determine the things in the past that kept you from achieving your desired goals and objectives (see hot fudge sundae in #5). Once you surface these obstacles, think about ways to effectively address them. Hint: these obstacles often occur well along the way to your goal, as opposed to early on in the process. Whether you need to tape an image or a slogan to your mirror, put daily tasks or reminders on your calendar, or ask a friend to play the ‘tough guy’ and push you…whatever it takes. Remember that this is a process and not instant gratification. After all, it’s past patterns and proclivities that got you your current outcome, and those are not easily “decided” away.
While awareness of these six steps can help you change habitual behaviors and create desired change, keep in mind that throughout the history of humankind, change has never been easy. Change is a struggle, but one well worth it if you desire personal growth. Over two thousand years ago a guy named Hegel wrote, “Struggle is the law of growth.” This is no less true in these modern times.
Read about two conceptions of habits: Aristotle and James (on psypost.org)