Change Your Bad Habits One (Very) Small Step at a Time

We’re a few months into the New Year and you’ve probably either completely forgotten all of those resolutions, or maybe you’re insanely proud (and surprised!) that you’ve been able to hold on to your goals for so long. Congrats! Were any of those to break a bad habit or two?


We all have a few that we think we could probably beat—but maybe just haven’t gotten around to trying—and then there are those that are so engrained in us, we think we’re probably better off not touching them at all. Big or small, bad habits can be changed… We see enough motivational stories on the internet to prove it… But it may be time to shift your strategy.

But first, let’s understand why we keep going on with habits—sometimes for years and years—without giving them a second thought. In his book Making Habits, Breaking Habits, psychologist Jeremy Dean says, “Habits allow the conscious part of our minds to go on a-wandering while our unconscious gets on with those tedious repetitious behaviors.” Basically, habits are just another way of vegging out. We don’t have to think of them, and even better, while we’re doing them, we can zone out and a-wander wherever we want.

Change Your Bad Habits

He talks about how habits are “curiously emotionless”—they provide a way for you NOT to have to make decisions, get attached, or basically do anything of importance. Deciding not to bite your nails is a lot harder than biting them, deciding not to drink is a lot harder than explaining yourself to your tipsy friends… You get the idea. It’s simply easier to keep on keepin’ on than it is to make the decision to break a bad habit (or the reverse—form a good one, another big decision we’d rather not make). We’re busy people! We have so much going on! Why add another mentally taxing item to the to-do?

So now you know. Habits are mundane and that’s why we like to do ‘em, good or bad. How to get over this major hurdle, then? Well there’s no way around it… the first step is to simply start. Small, tiny, even microscopic steps if you have to, but you must take the FIRST step. That starts with a decision.

You don’t have to declare that decision to the world. As one of everyone’s favorite TED Talks explained, announcing your brilliant goals actually makes you less likely to follow through. When you’re reaching your hand to your mouth, just make the single decision to stop. Don’t think about how you have to do that about 5,000 more times until it will stick. Think, just once.

The same goes for things that really seem like they can be accomplished in one swoop. Have trouble staying organized? You’ll likely fail at new attempts to change this habit if your strategy is to make a huge change all at once. You might buy all new office supplies, beautiful bins for your shelves, etc, and you’ll be able to keep everything perfectly tidy for about a week, maybe 2 (maybe). However, if you start small, think putting the dish soap back in exactly the same place EVERY TIME for two weeks and then move onto something slightly bigger, your brain will shift to that habit, and build new patterns of behavior. The most interesting thing about this is that what you’re doing here is exactly what you do when you FORM a bad habit. That repetitive behavior rewires the brain.

Give it a try, and report back! xx

Photo: Ian Prince

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