"Changing" A Habit

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It's not just that people are 'creatures of habit,' they are 'captives of habit' as well. The more often they have acted a certain way before, the more likely they are to act that way again. Thus past behavior is the best predictor of present conduct because people tend to keep doing what they are used to doing.

Trying something the first time may be very difficult and require a lot of thought and effort; but after repeating it a hundred times, learning becomes ingrained and action becomes automatic. Consider the difference between learning to drive a car and driving a car after five years experience. What felt hard at first feels easy at last.

Habits are repetition-based behaviors that usually serve people well. Habits are very efficient. Like second nature, they can be performed without much thinking. Most of the convenient rules we follow and the little rituals we enjoy today we will repeat tomorrow, depending on these habits to help us make a secure, familiar, and comfortable way through our day.

All habits, however, are not the same. At one extreme are those that are extremely helpful - like ROUTINES that simplify and organize one's life, and like DISCIPLINES that support positive self-maintenance and the pursuit of goals. At the other extreme are those that can be extremely harmful - like COMPULSIONS that are usually driven by fear, and like ADDICTIONS that create dependency on self-destructive substances, activities, or relationships for survival.

Less extreme than compulsions and addictions are a variety of SELF-DEFEATING HABITS, like constantly creating crises by misplacing necessary belongings or like continually running late and missing important commitments. It is habits such as these that people tend to label "bad" may want to change.

To change a habit requires first understanding that A HABIT CANNOT BE CHANGED. A habit is a pattern of behavior programmed through practice. 'Relapses' or 'slips' demonstrate that old habits cannot be erased or eliminated. Under fatigue or duress, relinquished behaviors can be revived. "With all this stress at work, I fell back into my vending machine diet again." The practice can be broken, but the habit pattern itself cannot be changed. What a person can do is to CHOOSE NOT TO PRACTICE THE HABIT and so cause the pattern to fall into relative or complete disuse. "I've stopped going to the vending machine for comfort food when under stress at my job."

Sometimes the exercise of WILL POWER is sufficient to overcome a bad habit. "After honestly assessing the negative consequences, I have decided not to act that way any more." (Written lists of negative consequences can provide a positive motivation for habit change.) Many times, however, will power of resolution is insufficient to overcome the WANT POWER of habit. "I want to keep doing what I'm used to even though I know it's not good for me and I'm determined to stop it."

In this case, SUPPORT may be helpful to withstand the temptation of repetition. Another person or a support group to which one belongs can provide an opportunity to talk the desire for repetition out without acting it out, and to provide ideas for managing the desire for satisfaction that motivates the habit in a more constructive way.

To stop practicing a habit requires moving from AUTOMATIC REACTING to INTENTIONAL THINKING because habits, from repetition, are acted out impulsively without much oversight by thought. The first intentional thought to resort to when feeling like indulging an old habit is DELAY ('counting to ten' to create time to think before you act.)

Stop, think, and ASK THE JUDGMENT QUESTIONS: "Is what I feel like doing really wise to do?" "How will I feel about myself after giving into this habit once again?" If answers to the judgment questions oppose repetition of the habit, then PUT SATISFACTION OF THE HABIT OFF. Instead of saying to yourself "I won't do this again," say to yourself "I won't do this right now." Putting off a habit is much easier than giving it up. Buying time by putting off the decision until later can create room for other choices and allow momentary temptation to subside.

Next, HAVE A PLANNED ALTERNATIVE TO FOLLOW that either satisfies the habitual need in a constructive way, or at least offers a distracting alternative until the old habit need has passed. 'Doing instead of' is often easier than simply 'doing without' because doing instead offers a positive direction where doing without does not. Having a planned alternative for what to do differently when the habitual impulse next arises also creates a sense of self-control and the opportunity for making a competing choice.

PUT THIS PLANNED ALTERNATIVE INTO PRACTICE often enough and a new habit pattern is created, one that becomes more natural to select when the old habit impulse happens to arise. It usually takes creating a new habit pattern to cause an old habit pattern to fall into disuse.

There are two attitudes of mind that make habit change very difficult - taking the habit personally and punishing oneself for giving into the old habit. When people take a bad habit personally and indict them selves for being "bad" or for being weak-willed, SHAME is often the result.

Better to respect the power of habits and understand that both good and bad habits exercise an extremely strong hold on people's behavior. People are truly captives of their habits; that's what makes habits so hard to change. A bad habit does not make the person bad. It means that the person is recognizing a behavior of long standing that has negative consequences upon one's self or upon one's relationships, a behavior that person may wish to break.

When people punish them selves for giving into a bad habit once again, resolving to make them selves pay in additional pain for what remorse wishes they had not done, GUILT is often the result. Unfortunately, taking a bad habit personally or punishing oneself for giving into a bad habit only makes that habit even harder to overcome. Shame and guilt are not helpful when it comes to 'changing' a bad habit because the worse you think about yourself and treat yourself the more likely you are to resort to the bad habit to feel better. It is through crediting oneself for effort, not criticizing oneself for slips or relapses, that habit change is accomplished.


1) Honestly assess the harmful consequences of the habit, and then try exercising will power to give it up.

2) If will power fails, get social support to call on to help withstand temptation when the habitual need arises.

3) Commit to intentional thinking instead of automatic reacting in order to weaken the rule of impulse.

4) When the old habit need arises, immediately institute delay, create time to think, and put satisfaction of the habit off.

5) Ask the judgment questions: "Is what I feel like doing really wise to do?" "How will I feel about myself after giving into this habit once again?"

6) Have a constructive planned alternative in mind for when the old habit need arises.

7) Put this planned alternative into practice.

8) When, in the process of giving up a 'bad' habit, a slip occurs, don't shame or guilt yourself.

9) Use slips to strengthen self-knowledge and personal resolve.

10) Remember that just as it takes practice to make habits, it takes practicing positive alternatives to break their hold upon you.

© Carl Pickhardt Ph.D. 2002, all rights reserved. For permission to use this Psychological Update, contact the author.
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