“Our character is basically a composite of our habits. Because they are consistent, often unconcious patterns, they constantly, daily, express our character…” –Stephen R. Covey
We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act, but a habit.” – Aristotle
You’ve been there before, I’m sure; we all have. You want to make some sort of change and can’t seem to make it stick.
Whether it’s your New Year’s Day resolutions, your promise to listen more, or your new time-management regime, replacing old habits with new ones is tough. And it can be discouraging: how much energy do you have to start a new exercise program the day after you’ve declared the last program a flop?
Can you ever teach old dogs new tricks?
Why is it so difficult to break a habit and put a new, more constructive one in its place?
- Habits, by design, resist change. They are the original “set it and forget it” lifestyle aid. And for good reason: habits keep you safe and sane. You can appreciate how great it is that your habits resist change. Without habits, you’d have to consciously think about everything. Imagine what life would be like if you had to consciously think about everyday tasks such as walking, talking, driving a car, reading, typing, and remembering to say, “Please,” and “Thank You.” All these habits made sense to you as you built them and they still serve a good purpose.
- The typical methods for changing habits have a fatal flaw: they try to fight the old habit with “will power.” Will power is just no match for a nicely entrenched habit. In his book, The Biology of Belief, Dr. Bruce Lipton says our habitual brain is more powerful than our conscious brain…more than a million times more powerful! Your habits are going to win whenever you pick a fight with them.
Luckily, there is a method for building new habits that works.
This method works because it refuses to fight. It’s like a non-violent protest–a sit-in–or the quiet insistence of water eroding a mountain.
There are 5 steps or phases. Though you start at Phase 1 and end at Phase 5, you rarely proceed linearly through. You may find yourself at Phase 3, then back to Phase 1, and up to Phase 4 for a moment, and back to Phase 2.
The key tool you’ll use is observation. Just watching. Noting. Without judgment, guilt, blame, or comment. When you notice you are at Phase 2, simply say to yourself something like, “Oh, here I am at Phase 2.”
Below, I use the example of replacing the habit of reacting defensively when work is criticized with a habit of seeking to better understand and improve. You, of course, can use this tool for any new habit you want to build.
The 5 Phases of Habit Building
- Commit: Clearly describe and commit yourself to the new habit you want to build. Describe both the old way you’ve done things in the past and the new way you intend to make into your habit. Example: “My old way of reacting to apparent criticism of my work is to argue defensively. My new way is to ask for clarification, confirming I understood what they meant, and request insights and suggestions from the Critic on making future work even better.”
- Observe yourself having done it the old way long after you did it. “Oh, all week I’ve been doing it the old way. On Monday afternoon, all day Wednesday, and now, after this meeting, I notice that I’ve been reacting defensively.” And that’s it.
- Observe yourself having just done it the old way. “Hey! That was me just having done it the old way. I just had my ‘criticism of work’ button pushed. And I reacted defensively.”
- Observe yourself just about to do it the old way and then continuing to do it the old way. “Yes, here it comes. I can see myself facing a situation where I usually act in the old way, namely my work is about to be criticized. — And, yes, there, I reacted the old way; I argued defensively.”
- Observer yourself just about to do it the old way and instead opting for the new way. “Yes, here it comes. I can see my self facing that situation where I usually act in the old way, namely my work is about to be criticized. —- And now I am going to do it the new way. I am going the start by clarifying my understanding of their point of view.”
Give it a go
Try this tool yourself. Select a habit you’d like to build, use this approach, then come back and share your experiences. What habit will you pick first?