The Slippery Slope of Habits

Whenever we want to make a change in our lives, it often requires the successful adoption of a new habit. Habits are tricky. Everyone already has habits. Often we talk about changing our habits but ignore the habits we already have, many of which are directly counter to the new habit we are trying to adopt.

What is a habit?

Before I continue, what is a habit? Let's define this mysterious and elusive creature. Merriam-Webster defines it as, "an acquired mode of behavior that has become nearly or completely involuntary."

There are two parts of this definition that are important.

A habit is acquired.

How do we acquire habits? Some are obvious. I have a habit of eating every day. Survival. Some are not so obvious. I have another habit of biting my fingernails. Hard to pin that one down.

A habit is nearly or completely unconscious.

Often, we have little or no awareness that we are even engaging in the habit. Sometimes a habit we have is pointed out by a friend or loved one. I've been told that biting my fingernails is disgusting. Probably. Other times we are already engaged in the habit, and we become spontaneously aware that we are doing it. It's almost like it's just happening on its own.

The spontaneous awakening to the fact we are engaging in a habit, especially one that we want to change, is the first part of the key to changing it.

How do we change our habits?

We say we want to break a habit. That's not really how it works. We replace one habit with a different one. I've heard that it takes 21 days to create a new habit. Maybe. According to Positive Psychologist Emily vanSonnenberg

(@evansonnenberg), it takes anywhere from 18 to 254 days and 66 days on average.

Bottom line: it takes as long as it takes. The more diligent and focused we are at the beginning of our new habit journey, the faster we will see a change.


Awareness. Mindfulness. It's important to cultivate awareness of two things.

One: The negative habit you are trying to replace. If you don't know you are doing it, you can't do anything about it. Even if the awareness is in hindsight, that's AWESOME! Take what you can get. Once you realize that you just ate three slices of birthday cake, in spite of your commitment to eating healthy, take a minute and replay the scene. Try to find the moment that your unconscious habit took over. Replay it.

Two. The new habit you are trying to establish. Make a different choice in your imaginary replay of the scene. Focus on how good it will feel to stick with your commitment and resist the cake.

The second part of the key to changing a habit is

positive reinforcement.

Be Your Own Biggest Fan

The mind doesn't respond very well to negative reinforcement. When you make a better choice in your imaginary replay, find your inner cheerleader. Do whatever you have to do to make that moment a positive thing.

Maybe even jump up and down and make a little cheer. "Who's awesome because of my new commitment? I AM!"

This might feel very awkward and silly and stupid and . . . whatever. It's the secret sauce!

The more you reinforce the positive behavior, the more quickly it will become the new normal, the new habit.

The good news for all of us impatient people: there's no limit to how often we can replay the birthday cake catastrophe and change the story. No limit. The more often you revisit the scene, make a different choice and . . . wait for it . . . give yourself some positive reinforcement, the faster the new habit will establish itself.

Charles Duhigg (@cduhigg), the author of The Power of Habit, discusses "the habit loop" of cues, routines, and rewards of habits. What causes you to engage in a habit, the habit itself, and why is the habit attractive? It's a great summary of the process.

Keep Going

And it takes time. Sixty-six days can seem like a long time, but it's a blink of an eye compared to the decades that some of our most stubborn habits have been hanging around. Be patient. If you were going to run a marathon, would you get mad if you were tired after 3 miles? If your not in good shape you might, but it won't do much good. Maybe you would just keep going because you are in it for the long haul.

Developing a positive habit that will be beneficial to you and, by extension, to the people around you is worth the time and energy. So, get going. Find the right blend between tenacity an kindness and stick with it. It's worth it.

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