Top Ten Tips on...

Changing Habits

26 December 2022
Effective Top Tens - Podcast
Quick, practical tips on a wide range of management and personal development themes.
Making and breaking habits - what do you need? Know your reasons, then how to replace the bad ones, and reinforce and repeat the good ones

recognise that habits are really difficult to change

for yourself, as well as for others. This is mainly because the way we typically do things are familiar and comfortable. So the more we do them, the more comfortable they become, and by contrast, any change is by definition likely to be less comfortable. Here’s a simple example to illustrate this – if you’re able to do it, please have a go. Fold your arms. Ok. Now unfold them, and fold them the other way round. Did you struggle to do it? And how does this alternative way feel? Now unfold, and fold again as you wish. Have you gone back to the usual, familiar way – the almost automatic way. And a final question – how long would it take you to make the new way stick, so that doing it the new way was as unthinking and as automatic as the usual way? So my first tip is this: recognise that habits are really difficult to change – for yourself and in others.


habits are generally good

most of our life is habitual – that is, driven by habits. They are a major part of our life support system. If we didn’t have habits, we’d have to think about everything we do – and we’d be lost, exhausted, careless. So recognise that most habits help.


not all habits are conscious

because many of our habits are automatic, they are also unconscious, meaning we are unaware of them. So consider for a moment that someone may do or say something that is unhelpful. The chances are they may not know they are doing it – it may be an unconscious habit – something known as a blind spot behaviour, and covered in a separate podcast. So if it is unconscious, it cannot be self-correcting – someone has to say something – otherwise the behaviour – and unconscious habit – will persist. So three elements to this third tip: be kind to people who may have an unfortunate but unconscious habit; accept that if you don’t say something, it will persist; and consider asking those around you to let uou know if you are doing something unhelpful that you don’t intend…



the next four tips all start with the letter ‘R’ – and the first of these is Replace. Replace the habit. Just stopping a habit creates a vacuum – what do you do instead? And if there is no alternative, then it’s all the more likely you will return to your familiar habit. So replace a habit rather than stop one. For example, if you stop eating unhealthy food, you’ll just get hungry and crave even more for what you want to give up; so instead substitute some healthier food you like…you have something positive to move towards, as well as something negative to move away from…



the second R is Reason. Someone is more likely to change a habit if they have a good reason for doing so. In the arm folding example, there was no good reason to change your arm folding habit – it serves you well and no alternative would make your life better – so, no reason to change.



the third R stands for Repetition. If you drive a car, do you remember your first driving lesson. Now compare that with how you drive now. Most of your driving is typically a habit. And it has become a habit largely through repetition. So if you want to change a habit, you have to repeat…and repeat…and repeat…



the fourth and final R is Reinforcement. Whenever progress is being made, it needs to be recognized and reinforced. So praise anyone who is working on improving a habit; incentivize yourself and reward yourself for progress and achievement.


chunk it down

some habits may be difficult to change because they are complex or difficult, perhaps involving several components. If so, break the habit down into its smaller parts, and focus on each of those smaller parts, Typically, being smaller, they are easier to address, and also perhaps stand out more. This is particularly true of generalized habit change, such as I want to eat more healthily, or prevent waste, or take more exercise. Identify smaller components that you can really get to grips with – for example, eat fresh vegetables rather than chips; turn off the tap when cleaning my teeth; and taking a 30 minute walk every day. All of these, being smaller and more specific, are likely to be ‘manageable’, and probably relatively easy to accomplish. And as you become successful at these, you can confidently add further, smaller components, and as a result, over time, achieve the bigger impact you always wanted to make.


make your desired habit part of your identity

make it part of who you are, rather than something you have to do. Make it internal, rather than external. Notice the difference between: “I have to go for a run” and “I am a runner”. “I need to walk every day” and “I am someone who walks every day”. So how you talk about the habit, and its relationship to you, matters. If you are a runner, then its something that’s part of who you are, what you do. It’s not an imposed chore; it helps define you – and as such you are more likely to do it, and not avoid it.


discipline is over-rated

many people feel that discipline is crucial to habit change. And being disciplined can certainly help. But so can good systems and strategies. For example, if you create a system or strategy that makes doing the bad habit more difficult, or the good habit easier, then change is more likely. For example, putting healthier food at the front of food counters significantly increases the take up of such food in schools. Putting a tighter notch in your waist belt will act as a reminder to do something (and indicate progress); going to the gym before going home increases the chances of your gym attendance – as does going with someone else who you don’t want to let down. These are all systems or strategies which can be as or more important than individual willpower and discipline.

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