Change A Habit in 6 Simple Steps Process

November 7, 2013

You’ve probably heard that it takes 30 days to change a habit. This is definitely not true.

Think about it: if a new coffee shop opens up on your block, they have your favorite tea or coffee drink, the people that work there are fun and nice, the environment is beautiful and they play your favorite music, do you think it will take you an entire month to get in the habit of going there daily?

Of course not! My guess is you’d be a regular within a few days.

On the other hand, there may be habits you’ve been trying to change for years and it’s still hanging around. This 30-day idea makes a bit of sense in that if you do something for 30 days you will likely be in the habit so to speak but it doesn’t mean it will stick for the long haul and it certainly doesn’t mean that all habits take 30 days to form. Some will be easy and take only a few days, some will take 30 days or even longer.

Breaking a habit is a bit more of a dicey process but forming a new habit in it’s place is often the easiest way to go about it. Such as if you want to stop having so much caffeine you switch from coffee to green tea. You keep the ritual and routine along with many of the comforts or rewards but you do change the habit to get your desired outcome, in this case, may be better sleep or less anxiety.

But some habits are just really hard to break and the longer you’ve been doing it the harder it can be to stop because it’s on autopilot. Getting really mindful and examining the entire habit loop from the reminder and the routine to the reward, the thing you like that you ultimately get out of the habit is a great way to break it down and understand it rather than just hoping willpower will somehow get you through – which rarely works, right?

Here’s how I broke a nightly glass of wine habit several years ago and it’s a simple process you can use to dig into those tough to change habits.

If you’d like to print out the steps for this process to make this easier, I got you. Just download that here.

1. Identify the habit and tune into its reminder, routine and reward.

For my glass of wine, I really wanted it at the end of a long day seeing patients at my office. I commuted from Brooklyn into Manhattan which took about 40 minutes from door to door and the whole way I was anxiously looking forward to taking off my heels, changing into my PJs and having some wine.

I’d tried to break this habit countless times because wine always made my sleep worse, makes me puffy the next day and less clear-headed but despite these downfalls, I thought it was delicious and a good way to relax.

But I was ready to dig in, so I looked for the first thing: the reminder.

For me, the reminder was the end of the day. As I finished my last chart note for my last patient of the day I was mentally going “off duty” and it was time for relaxation – to me this meant PJs and wine.

The routine was packing up my office and heading home. As I started closing my laptop, taking out the trash, turning off the lights, putting on my coat and locking up I was looking so forward to that glass of wine. This is how it went every evening as I wrapped up my workday. Then I’d walk to the subway, wait for the train, ride home, walk past the wine store… know how that went.

The reward was two things: relaxation (although not really) and freedom.

Wine has always been a tough habit for me because for over a decade during my pharmacy training and medical school I had so much school work, so much stress and anything that gave me even slightly worse sleep or decreased my energy even a smidge was just a no go. For years I had to say no to friends going out for a drink or stay home when it was someone’s birthday on a Tuesday and it was hard. It was isolating and it was sad. But it was a sacrifice I was willing to make to get through school.

But when I graduated and my 32 credit a quarter load (yeah, it was insane!) was over work felt really easy! I could go out for a quick dinner and glass of wine on a weeknight if I wanted to. It was heaven. It was freedom.

When I tried to give up that glass of wine after a long day at my office I felt like I was losing my freedom. Now that’s a big reward.

And one I had no idea was at play! It wasn’t until I really took the time to look at the habit and break it down into it’s parts was I able to see the rewards and where I could intervene most easily: the reminder and the routine. these two steps are vital to getting you out of autopilot.

It’s not like I had to put it in my calendar: wine at 8:30 PM, it happened automatically. Those habits are so much harder to change than becoming a regular at a coffee shop right?

2. Id the payoff of this habit and be willing to give it up. Identify and write out at least 2 reasons you are willing to give it up and how it helps you get your WANT.

My WANT was a good night’s sleep and to be energetic and clear-headed the next day. The want I thought I wanted was to relax, but when I look at what I want most it was the first two and there are other ways to relax.

Now here’s where it’s really hard: remember my reward? My payoff? It was freedom. THAT is a hard thing to give up! So I had to come up with two reasons why I wanted my sleep and energy MORE than I wanted the freedom that a glass of wine gave me.

It’s a powerful question you can ask yourself: what do I want MORE than this? Knowing how much the reward means to you is the first step, the second is finding two reasons to give it up ANYWAY. It doesn’t mean you don’t want the thing, it means you want something else more and you’re willing to give it up despite wanting it.

It’s easy to give up something you don’t want. Ask my five year old how hard it would be for her to give up eating veggies, haha! Now ask her how hard it is to give upcoming into my bed every night. A lot harder.


3. In your habit loop (reminder, routine, reward), replace the routine.

OK now for some change. The remainder stays the same and once you’ve identified the actual reward, that stays the same as well – what changes is only the routine.

Now you may be wondering how I get to keep freedom as my reward if I give up the wine. When you actually look at it, there wasn’t as much freedom in the wine as there is in being free from waking up groggy, jonesing for caffeine cuz I slept so badly and looking in the mirror at those puffy eyes I wish I didn’t have. That actually wasn’t freedom at all. I felt a slave to coffee and concealer the next day.

So you gotta dig in and take the time to see what’s really going on with these tough habits. It’s incredibly enlightening to look closer.

Now, as you change your routine, utilize if-then planning to implement. Here was mine:

If I have a glass of wine during the week, then I will try again the next day by forgiving myself and moving on.

If I have a glass of wine during the week, then I will look at the day and see what went wrong and how I could’ve better supported myself as I ended my day and headed home.

Next, lay out in detail your new routine. For me, I changed the way I walked to the subway. Sounds simple but I couldn’t not lock up my office or turn off my computer right? So I walked a different way from office to subway and then walked on the other side of the street from the wine shop. Relatively easy and incredibly effective. It got my brain out of it’s groove and reminded me of my bigger WANT.


4. Troubleshoot challenges and obstacles you’ll have to pull this off.

This is where you need to #beyourbestfriend and really set yourself up for success.

Think a minimum of 2 challenges to you successfully practicing this new habit. Use if-then planning here if it seems appropriate. Practice Optimism Light – stay positive but plan for life to get all lifey and throw you a curveball.

5. Optimize your WILLpower. Check out more on willpower with this one and this one.

We make decisions all day and believe it or not they drain your willpower. Where to park the car, what salad to have for lunch, who will pick up the kids, what kind of laundry detergent to get, what color nail polish to get at the salon, what can you make with the groceries in your fridge. ALL of those things actually take willpower so do what you can to optimize yours. These two posts will give you many tools for stopping willpower drains and boosting your willpower reserves like charging a battery.

6. Manage progress by comparing to your old self, not someone else.

Don’t look to so and so who makes her healthy habits look effortless, you have no idea what her situation is. It may be harder than it looks, she may find health easy but other things hard, she may have a different set of resources and support. Eyes on your own paper. Stay present and in your own lane, #fullengagementliving as we  say in Hangry.

How much better are you doing than you would’ve done yesterday or last year?

Wellness and health is not a race, although it feels like one on social media huh? So keep it here, right here with you. That’s your only comparison is how you’re doing now vs. how you may have done in the past.


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