how to change a habit

Ever had trouble changing something? Ever wondered how to change a habit?

Here’s what I notice every New Year as articles about changing habits in order to change our lives emerge: we talk about changing habits as if it’s as simple as making a decision. You identify the old habit, pick what you want for a new habit, and when confronted with the moment to do life differently, you choose.

It’s just willpower, right? It’s just about hard work, right?

I see so many smart women apply this philosophy to behavior change, as if they’re studying for a test and through a little elbow grease and sitting at a dedicated desk each day with flash cards, they’ll earn their A+. When this approach actually does work, they emerge having hit their goal but feeling tired and unfulfilled. When this approach doesn’t work and they don’t hit their goal, they blame themselves for not having tried hard enough.

There are a few problems with this approach to changing a habit: first, that it’s not a lot of fun to grind yourself down to a fine powder in order to change something in your life and second, how your brain creates or changes habits just doesn’t work this way.

How to Change a Habit

Let me give you an example of how habits work when we’re creating behavior change. Let’s say that you’ve come to what feels like a big realization: you want to make some kind of art, every single day.

(Feel free to substitute “make art” with whatever your own dreams happen to be—start a new career, write the book you know you have in you, fix your marriage, adopt healthy habits such as regularly exercising or meditating).

You don’t necessarily think that you are going to be a famous artist. You just know that when you walk through an art store, the colors of the paint call to you and you want to start making some little bit of art, every single day. You get these heady rushes where you think about how amazing it would be to pull together a little corner of your home to be an art studio, and you’ve even cleared yourself a bit of desk space. You decide to spend $100 on art supplies at the store. Once you’re home, quite suddenly, the rush of inspiration and fun is gone and in its place is a low-grade feeling that something just isn’t quite right. Perhaps you feel pressure to create something amazing on your first go. It occurs to you that the ideas in your head probably aren’t going to translate to the canvas, right away. Maybe you even make a few attempts, but you feel awkward so these attempts feel dissatisfying. You put the materials away, telling yourself that it just isn’t the right timing and that you’ll try again, tomorrow. The next day, you look at them but again, it doesn’t feel right or go as planned.

Before long, this idea you had about being a person who joyfully made art every single day, feels silly and like a waste of the $100.

So what actually happened? Where did all the joy go? What happened to that initial hit of inspiration and fun?

Here’s what happened:

You had the inspiration to do something different, and you followed it. Yay!

Then, right at the point when this something different required a different set of behaviors, you felt anxiety. Anxiety is why it “didn’t feel quite right” for some reason.

With habit-formation, we’d call these not quite right feelings a “cue,” because that cue paved the way for what comes next, which is…

…you decided to take a break. Taking a break was your response to that “not quite right feeling.” If you look closely enough at all the times that you haven’t followed through on an intended goal, you might realize that “taking a break” is, in fact, what we’d term a “routine” if we’re talking about habit-formation.

That “cue” of not feeling right lead to a response—the “routine” of taking a break—and that lead to the third part of the habit-formation process, which is a reward. When it comes to the long-term desired goal of making art every day, the routine of taking a break doesn’t lead to the reward you actually want. But in the short-term? The routine of taking a break is like releasing a pressure valve.

Cue leads to routine leads to reward, over and over—until we interrupt it.

The Key to Changing Habits

In The Power of Habit, Charles Duhigg explains the “Golden Rule of Habit” change as follows: “You can’t extinguish a bad habit; you can only change it.”

What he means by this is that you don’t need to change, and probably can’t always change, the cues. After all, any time you decide to change something in your life, that “cue” of stress is going to be there, and it wouldn’t make sense to resist wanting “rewards” in the form of relieving stress once it has started. You will always have cues, and you will always desire rewards.

The part that you change is the part in the middle—the routine.

In other words, if you have a bunch of art supplies that you never use (or if you know that you need to confront your debt but haven’t started, or if you want to meditate regularly but always put it off, or if you desire literally any other change in your life)…

…you’re going to need a different routine, a different response, to the “cue” of “this doesn’t feel right.”

When you’re standing in front of the canvas or at the precipice of any change, you have got to identify the routine that you default to, and then change up the routine.

Four Common Fear Routines

In The Courage Habit, I describe the four most common fear routines, in detail (and you can get a preview of them by becoming a Your Courageous Life subscriber and downloading the Fear Patterns Workbook). They are perfectionism, pessimism, people-pleasing, and self-sabotage.

Once you see clearly which routine you go into most often, you can get off the treadmill of “working harder” to change your habits, and instead…slow down. Soften. Pause with what your defaults are, and get more present.

You can be in the midst of the old routine and ask yourself, Is this what I really want, right now? Is there some bit of discomfort that I can lean into, just a little bit, in order to create something new?

A New Way to Change Your Life

What if change could happen through a series of gentle whispers, instead of loud, stressful internal exhortations to do better?

What if you could slow the process down enough to actually focus, to think through what it is that you truly want to do?

What I notice in my own life and with clients is that when I’m slowing down enough to really think through what it is that I need, the challenges don’t seem so daunting. I feel less pressure to get it right. My curiosity can lead the way. I feel more confident and courageous, simply because I feel good in my own skin.

I want this for you, too. Give yourself the gift of slowing down enough to examine your habits, and release the white-knuckled grip of marching through life with all of that tight willpower. You absolutely can change your life in ways that feel good, one breath at a time.