By December 31, 2009 Read More →

How To Change a Habit and Make It Stick

"A habit cannot be tossed out the window; it must be coaxed down the stairs a step at a time." – Mark Twain

If you want to change a habit and make it stick, this post has the keys (and just in time for New Years resolutions.) While the saying may go, “where there’s a will there’s a way,” I find it’s way more effective to bet on techniques that work, or at least improve your chances for success.

When it comes to change, stack the deck in your favor. 

Steps to Change a Habit

Here are the key steps for making your change happen:

  • Step 1. Start with a Compelling Why
  • Step 2. Catch Yourself in the Habit
  • Step 3. Choose Your New Response

Step 1. Start with a Compelling "Why"

Why do you need to change to this new behavior?  If you don’t feel you need to, you aren’t going to do it.  Meaningful change happens out of purpose or pain, not convenience.
To bottom line it, if it’s not compelling, you won’t change.  You need a strong, emotionally compelling reason to make the change.  Are you doing it for yourself?  Are you doing it for your kids?  Find the reason that gives you the most inner strength.  You’re going to need this during your trying times and your moments of choice.

Change doesn’t have to take forever.  Remember Ebenezer Scrooge — it was a life-changing event for him and it happened over night.  The real key here though is having something to move towards or change to.  It’ tough to just move away from a pattern.  Instead, have a replacement pattern that you want to implement.

Step 2. Catch Yourself in the Habit

There are events in your day that trigger your habit.  For example, maybe it’s every time you feel stressed, you reach for your habit to comfort you.  It might just be part of your routine.  For example, maybe you’ve baked it into your morning routine or when you come home at night.  Make sure you identify these triggers and events up front, so you recognize them when they happen.

What’s important is to know when it happens, so you can catch yourself.  Catch yourself in the moment, and pause.  It’s these moments that you’re going to introduce your chance to choose your new response.  These are your choice points.

Step 3. Choose Your New Response

As Nike says, "Just do it."  Implement your replacement pattern.  This is where it counts.  The key thing here is that you’re choosing your new response.  This is where your compelling "Why" kicks in.  If it doesn’t invoke enough emotion for you, then it’s not compelling enough.

The key here is to make your new habit, feel good.  You can do that by linking it to good feelings, such as playing your favorite song.  You can also think the thoughts that serve you, such as "why" you’re making the change.  You can also focus on "how" you’re making the change.  Either way, you engage your mind and emotions to support you.  It’s a tag team.

Create Glide Paths to Make It Stick 

Another thing you can do here is create a glide-path for yourself.  Make it easy to fall into your new success pattern.  Structure your success, whether it’s visual cues or just making it easy to choose your new pattern.  Do this planning up front; don’t try to figure this out on the fly while you’re in the thick of things.

Flex Your Attitude of Gratitude

One other key here is to reward your behavior along the way.  Flex your attitude of gratitude and thank yourself for choosing your new pattern in your moment of choice.  Rewarding your behavior along the way versus promising yourself some reward after the fact is the key to results.  This will also reinforce linking it to good feelings.

Example of Changing a Habit 

A simple example of putting this into action comes from a friend who used it on a habit of regular late-night snacking.

  1. Step 1: Why – genuinely wants to lose the extra weight, in particular for an upcoming reunion.
  2. Step 2: Catch Yourself in the Habit – snacking would typically be while watching movies, so starting a movie was the time to be watchful.
  3. Step 3: Choose Your New Response – they like edamame, which is much healthier, so have that ready when the movie starts (this is a Glide Path).
  4. Step 4: Gratitude – thank yourself for choosing the right behavior, connect it to a healthier slimmer self.

Don’t try to "will" your way through it or suffer through it.  The real key is knowing that you move from intellectual to emotional to physical.  Once physical the new habit is firmly in place and the old one is gone for good.

Photo by ZedZap.away.Van.

15 Comments on "How To Change a Habit and Make It Stick"

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  1. JB King says:

    This reminds me of something a group I’m in uses for trying to have a better life. Re:LIFE is has a series of “Recognize, reframe, respond, reflect,” that is similar the steps above in trying to do things better. They also have this diagram showing various capitals we have and how to combine them in various ways. For example, taking one’s calling and adding vision and gratitude to help build human capital which through coaching and mentoring can build intellectual capital. I find it to be an interesting idea.

    I remember there being a similar post over on the Happiness Project about trying to stick with new habits that may vary in terms of how long they take to stick.

  2. Liked glide paths. I call it funneling myself into it -just like Google does with AdSense ;)

  3. Hilary says:

    Hi JD .. I like the stack the deck in your favour – means at least you’re working in the direction you intend to take.

    Determination to action the ‘why’ .. determination to do it, to keep going, until ..

    It’s a habit – catch yourself, so the negatives can’t make you miss the catch and the habit with it ..

    As you change .. know you’ll feel that success as the change happens – improvements will kick in

    I just need to do and process to the point where I am definitely going forward .. this year I have a compelling reason my life is ahead of me and I will make something of it ..

    A very Happpy and Successful 2010
    Hilary Melton-Butcher
    Positive Letters Inspirational Stories

  4. Mama Zen says:

    Excellent post. Identifying triggers is absolutely crucial.

    Happy New Year!

  5. Louisa says:

    What a great time of the year for this kind of post too JD. Everyone is busy trying to drop some bad habits and make some new good ones.

  6. “Catch your self in the habit” is deceptively simple yet very powerful. I like to keep records of what I’m focused on because the things of habit often go by without notice.

  7. Edamame, eh? Now may be the time to finally check that out , been hearing about it for a while.

    Encouraging change doesn’t have to take forever. I remember my cousin quoting someone years and years ago that ” 30 days are what it takes to change a habit “. I like the J.D. Plan much better.

    Great article — you inspire and impress me with your original articles, more than the ones you often present synopses of here!! And those are some good synopses!

  8. Perfect post for the new year when so many people are working on changing old habits. Love your advice!

  9. JD says:

    @ JB King

    I like Re:LIFE and the flow makes perfect sense.

    @ Alik

    Funnel is a great metaphor, especially when you like what pops out the other end.

    @ Hilary

    It sounds like you found your compelling why and that’s great. I think you’ve got the skills to make it happen.

    @ Mama Zen

    Happy New Year to you too!

    Triggers are one of my favorite concepts from NLP.

    @ Louisa

    It definitely is habit time. I like to think of the year as a fresh start (just like you get a fresh start each day, each week, each month.)

    @ Fred

    It’s funny how even good things can just disappear if we stop looking for them. I find myself periodically remembering good habits. When I do, I stick them into a simple checklist I can review and remind myself … a tickler list of good ideas.

    @ Jannie

    It’s a tasty little green treat. I usually bump into it as Sushi places.

    Change is a funny thing and thing to keep in mind is we’re always changing — ideally in the right direction ;)

    Thank you — I’m trying to balance sharing my insights along with beautiful insights from the treasure troves of books, quotes, and people.

    @ positively present

    Thank you.

  10. Jim says:

    Thanks for the post!

    “Catch Yourself in the Habit” let us know the context that trigger our bad habit, and “Create Glide Paths” is the key to remove our bad habit.

    But, how to create Glide Paths? It is always easy said than done. If there is any example, it will be of great help.

  11. JD says:

    @ Jim

    Here’s a simple example. If you want to run in the morning, have your sneakers by your bed and make it easy to throw on your clothes and just run.

    I pay attention to my most common patterns and routines and I find ways to make them feel lighter and simpler. For example, I keep my desk clear so it’s easy for me to quickly lay out any notes or books without feeling cramped.

  12. Jim says:

    Thanks.

    I like a clean desk too.