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Jun 7, 2010

Why You Can’t Make That Habit Stick (Part Three)

As you work to change your habits you’ll find that it’s incredibly easy to backslide into old patterns of behavior you wish you could move away from.  We talked earlier about how wishful thinking makes habit change hard (and how another root problem is that you don’t really want to give up the payoff of your bad habits).

But if you haven’t been able to change that bad habit into a good one, I’ll bet that there’s another force at work:

Painful Truth #3: If you try to change a habit in a vacuum, you’re screwed.

What a lot of people do when they want to break a habit is they decide something like “I’m going to stop doing X:”

  • “I’m going to stop drinking caffeine.”
  • “I’m going to stop smoking.”
  • “I’m going to stop wasting money.”

These are all great ideas for habit change, but the problem comes when it’s time to face the reality that stopping something can be pretty damned difficult.  Everything’s fine for a few days, but then the cravings to slip back into the old patterns of behavior begin – or worse yet, a new, similarly destructive pattern rises up to replace it.

Sure, you may stop smoking, but you turn to eating more to compensate and pack on the pounds (or if you’re like me, you cut out the soda and coffee and then experience massive sweets cravings).

Or maybe you just binge after a while – you try not to waste money for a few weeks, and then make a bunch of really stupid, pointless purchases to compensate.  We’ve all done it.

Sometimes it seems like the mental energy you put into resisting that bad habit builds up until it can’t be contained anymore, and then you find yourself feeling like a fool for having backtracked on your journey to a better life.

And there’s a reason for that: it’s true.

I’m not calling you a fool, but you may be doing something fool-ish …

Here’s the problem: if you just try to stop doing something, it becomes a battle of wills between your own deeply established patterns of behavior and this new idea that you’re going to stop it.  Nine out of ten times, the wimpy newcomer idea is going to get trounced because its strategy is foolish.

Trying to “stop” a pattern by sheer willpower is not a strategy. But gradually conditioning a new, enjoyable behavior is – and it works.

The problem most people have with habit change is they want to stop doing something that gives them a comforting, familiar payoff and they don’t know what to replace it with.  There’s this big vacuum of “what do I do instead?” and the answer is usually “I dunno” or it’s something that’s less than enjoyable.

You want to stop eating junk food and you don’t know what else to eat, so you backslide.  Or you tell yourself you’ll eat bran and broccoli instead, and you backslide.  And you feel foolish (because your approach is foolish).

What you need to do here is replace the bad habit you have now with a more enjoyable alternative – something that has a payoff that makes you actually feel good.  That’s how you build up a new pattern of behavior that serves you.

Essentially, you focus on the new payoff – not the pain of habit change – and it becomes easier.

Every time I quit caffeine (because all too often I got stupid and relapsed), I knew I was a total soda hound and I knew I’d think water was plain and boring.  Recipe for failure.  I was conditioned to that sweet, carbonated experience first thing in the morning.

So each time I quit, I’d stock up on naturally flavored seltzer water to drink instead of soda.  It took a while to get used to the taste (it stings!) but it satisfied the carbonation and cold-sweet-liquid craving.  Once I got used to that, drinking “plain old water” didn’t seem as boring.  Now I drink plenty of plain water, and mix it up with the seltzer when I feel a sweet craving.

It’s not always easy, but it’s a new, established pattern that gets stronger every day.  Gradually I’ll phase out the seltzer water, but for now it keeps me on track.

Another thing I did when I first quit was take a short walk when I felt a craving coming on. I knew I wanted a soda because I was having an energy crash, so I started taking a quick stroll outside the building through a wooded area in the back for just 5 minutes.  I knew that would give me an energy boost and it was enjoyable, so it helped a lot.

The important thing here is you can’t just stop a pattern – you have to replace it with a new pattern, and it has to be something with a payoff you want to experience.  Sometimes the new pattern is physical, like seltzer water or a walk in the woods.

Sometimes the new pattern is mental, like having a script you say to yourself in your head to talk yourself into better behavior (see How To Train Yourself To Be In The Mood You Want).

Te key here is you have to have an alternative.  Don’t fight the pattern.  Fight to create a new one.

Now Here’s The Part Where I Tell You To Do Stuff

Here’s what I want you to do right now while this is all fresh on your mind:

  1. Think of one habit change that’s been using the useless “stop” pattern and decide you’re going to create an enjoyable alternative.
  2. Take 5 minutes right now and brainstorm that alternative pattern.
  3. Leave a comment and tell us about what you’ve come up with. Leaving a comment will make you accountable for creating an alternative and the process will be a relief.  If you don’t want to put your real name, just put “Ass Kicker” in the name field.
  4. Click the Twitter link below and spread the word about this article.

Have at it.

Empower yourself.

That is all,


28 Responses to “Why You Can’t Make That Habit Stick (Part Three)”

  • Jun 7, 2010 Eduard @ People Skills Decoded

    Hey Dave,

    This article is simply beautiful. I know how common this vacuum approach is and I also believe it is pretty much useless. A lot of people are looking for quick, definite results, and there are so called experts out there who reinforce the idea that they are possible. And unfortunately, it does more harm than good.

  • Jun 7, 2010 Andy Fossett

    Ha! Exactly…

    I try to quit coffee and start drinking more beer. I cut back on beer and eat more ice cream. I realize I need to quit the ice cream and find myself right back with coffee.

    However, this is a problem of your #2 article – I don’t really want to give up any of them.

    I DO have one habit I want to build, though it doesn’t involve stopping anything. I’d like to drink more water, and I’m struggling to think of a payoff.

    I mean, yeah, of course there’s the pay off that “it’s healthy,” I need something tangible.

    Any suggestions?
    Andy Fossett´s last blog ..How I Finally “Made It” Online My ComLuv Profile

  • Jun 7, 2010 Steve Martile

    Hey Dave,

    Like your writing style, “here’s where I tell you to do stuff,” that made me laugh ;)

    Focusing on the payoff is right-on!

    It’s funny because I have friends who have asked me how I’m able to go the gym and keep in shape consistently and I say, “I just focus on the good feelings I’ll have right AFTER my workout,” and not the pain of making the change (just as you pointed out).

    And in my opinion it’s those mental scripts (patterns of thought) that must change before any physical habits take shape.

    Otherwise, it’s like pushing yourself to do something (against your own thoughts).
    Steve Martile´s last blog ..90 Day Money Back Guarantee For Mind Power Mastery Ends Tonight My ComLuv Profile

  • Jun 7, 2010 kate

    I like this post, I was just thinking about this today :)

    I’m trying to not stop at starbucks every day on my way to work (yeah EVERY DAY!) and today it worked because the line was insane – so i didn’t go! So starting tonight:

    1. make coffee at home the night before and flavor it up as iced coffee, refrigerate
    2. in the AM fill a car mug and enjoy on my long commute
    3. Be so engrossed in my mental planning for a job that does not require an hour long commute (one way) that i totally forget about starbucks at the 1/2 way point!

    @Andy – How about adding a glass of water before or after the beer/coffee/ice cream?

  • Jun 7, 2010 Dave Navarro

    Andy –

    When I hit that wall you’re talking about – when I can’t think of a payoff that connects with me emotionally, I fall back on character.

    In other words, I view it as a challenge to respect myself more. As in, “I don’t want to drink 3 glasses of water today, but if I make myself do it I’ll prove to myself that I have the stones to make myself do things.”

    I view it as a confidence builder – the task itself becomes unimportant, what matters then is making myself feel like more of a follow-through person. At the end of the day I feel like more of a man. :-)

    And if I look at it that way, I certainly don’t want to finish the day feeling like less of a man, so that gets my ass in gear.

    Does that help?

  • Jun 7, 2010 Dave Navarro

    Andy –

    Oh, and today I’m pouring my water into a lowball glass. So I’m not “having to drink water”, I’m doing (really big) shots!

    … of water.

    Hey man, whatever works …

  • Jun 7, 2010 Janet Hilts

    I so agree with you, Dave. It never works for me to self-improve AWAY from something (i.e. getting away from the old habit). But I’ve had good success creating letting go of the stuff that doesn’t serve me well by improving TOWARDS the new thing. Sometimes it’s a new habit and sometimes the focus is just the new way I want to be and feel. I’m amazed at the ways my subconscious comes up with great ways to get me there. Thanks for the Monday nudge.
    Janet Hilts´s last blog ..Fuzzy Lines My ComLuv Profile

  • Jun 7, 2010 James Chartrand - Men with Pens

    One important thing about stopping habits: you have to want to change them for YOU.

    Plenty of people suggest I should lay off coffee. Great for them! But I don’t want to. So stopping becomes for their sake, not mine, and thus a battle of wills. Me versus them versus coffee. Not fun.

    So even before you pick something you want to change, make sure YOU want to change it.

    Then make sure you want to CHANGE it. A lot of people want to stop a bad habit, but they’re comfy in their situation and don’t *really* want to change.

    If YOU want it, and you want to CHANGE it… then yeah, what you said. That’s an awesome plan.
    James Chartrand – Men with Pens´s last blog ..Writer’s Block – and One Trick to Beat It My ComLuv Profile

  • Jun 7, 2010 Dave Navarro

    James –

    Spot on. What’s the old phrase?

    “A man convinced against his will is of the same opinion still.”

  • Jun 7, 2010 a-kicker

    the habit I’d like to drop is staying up late. focus on? um, a cozy bedtime routine, *getting to* journal, knit, or read, practice my 10 daily minutes of guitar, treat myself to a heating pad when cold, look forward to a gratitude list…

    and then there’s the *why* I’d want to change this anyway – remembering I get more out of my day when alert and well rested, there’s more time for accomplishments, there’s more time to meditate and get ready to meet up with others…

    and the root issue is believing I deserve to have a full and productive day. I think all my motivation rests on that point; that quality of self-worth. so I build my self-esteem by celebrating every little thing I do and frame progress to my new habit as a celebration: i.e. yay – I went to sleep at 1am (instead of 4am; even though I’d like to beat myself up for not turning out the light at 10pm…)

  • Jun 7, 2010 Holly

    Great info. That’s definitely been my experience – finding a substitute habit and then focusing on the payoff. I’m struggling right now to find a replacement habit for my frequent stops at the bakery whenever I’m in chicago.

  • Jun 7, 2010 Jenn B

    I have the same problem with soda, but my craving comes from pain.

    I guess it’s better than barbituates, but what do I change it to?
    Jenn B´s last blog ..A letter to another mom business owner My ComLuv Profile

  • Jun 7, 2010 Jennia

    I did the reverse of a reward. When I was getting into the habit of walking on the treadmill, I could NOT watch TV or turn on the radio until I walked. I could watch TV or listen to tunes WHILE I walked or after I walked. IT made me get outta that bed and onto the treadmill first thing!

    Happy Birthday Dave!
    Jennia´s last blog ..Welcome to! My ComLuv Profile

  • Jun 7, 2010 Herman

    Thanks Dave for this post. This series has really helped me think about making changes and how to do it.

    The classic one for me is going to the gym. Like most people the thought of an hour on a treadmill as about as appealing as a punch to the face. But this winter (I live in NZ so we have backward seasons) I am building fun into my workouts by doing alternatives like yoga, climbing etc and doing it with friends. I am also eating better by taking ten mins a day to make a delicious lunch, which means not only do I not need to go out and grab something unhealthy, but I don’t want to because my brought lunch is much better.

    Thanks Dave… keep kicking our asses!

  • Jun 7, 2010 LaVonne Ellis

    I’ve been making lots of changes recently, thanks to the book Switch: How to Change Things When Change is Hard, by Chip & Dan Heath. But for me, exercise is the final frontier. There’s a whole lot of resistance to that one, and I don’t have ANY faith that I’ll ever conquer it, because I don’t want to. I want to be fit and healthy, of course. I just don’t want to exercise.
    LaVonne Ellis´s last blog ..How Action Triggers Help Create Instant Habits, part 2 My ComLuv Profile

  • Jun 8, 2010 asskicker?

    I have had an eating disorder but now I see that continuing in this manner is just decreasing my respect for myself. Now, instead of acting up around food I will ….
    Mmmm tricky.

  • Jun 8, 2010 B @ logos coaching

    …coincidently I am trying the same water approach Dave – using a very small glass. It’s working for me so far [day 3] :)

    A good topic to do a post on. Habits fill so much of our day yet often we don’t pay attention to what we do habitually. Which is great for habits we want to continue but not so great with the ones we want to replace.
    B @ logos coaching´s last blog ..HOW TO FULFIL AN EXPECTATION My ComLuv Profile

  • Jun 8, 2010 Andy Fossett

    Thanks Dave.

    I haven’t used the “prove to myself I’m man enough” technique in a looooong time, but I think you’re right that self-respect is an awesome motivator.

    And the “really big shots of water” thing is just silly enough to be worth doing. I’ll probably have a good chuckle every time I fill up.
    Andy Fossett´s last blog ..How I Finally “Made It” Online My ComLuv Profile

  • Jun 8, 2010 Maryam Webster

    I have a new crush I simply must tell you about: Dave Navarro. I registered for the library, I downloaded and Hoovered up all the materials. I signed up for a Monday Morning Asskicking. And it never felt so good. Dave, I feel as if I’ve met a kindred spirit. Modeler, pattern language & neurology – love it. Thank you for a tremendously value-added site. I will be recommending my list scoop up everything you have to offer. ;-)
    Maryam Webster´s last blog ..A Little Kitty Marketing Fit… My ComLuv Profile

  • Jun 8, 2010 hrushita

    hey im new here, so like everyone ive got a zillion payoffs, but right now ive picked a simple on…spending the least time possible on facebook or any social website for a while cause i pointlessly got addicted to it and later realised i was wasting too much heres my starting swimming :)

  • Jun 8, 2010 Sharon Ass-got-Kicked

    Excellent article. I re-read the previous two and this one again. I want to change my eating habits(been through this for 45+ years). I enjoy eating/snacking. The pay off is extensive: eating is: pleasureable(taste,feel), a distraction from other stuff that I “should” be doing, emotionally comforting. So my plan is to eat every two hours, something that is 100-200 calories and healthy. Once per day I will require myself to have 100 cal of one of my “addiction” foods: sweets.
    After almost one day of this routine I think the payoff is greater than the previous payoff my random eating/bingeing.

  • Jun 8, 2010 wbailey

    I used to snack a lot, especially whenever I was bored or antsy or in a bad mood. Now I drink a glass of water instead–it satisfies the need to get up and ingest *something*, and it’s good for me–and free! I aim for about 3-4 a day. Plus it staves off the hungries for a little while.

    I can totally identify w/ the starbucks stop. I put a halt to that by getting a coffee maker at home, and focusing on how much $ I was saving, and also how many totally unnecessary calories I was avoiding! I liken a chai to about a cup of pure sugar–uber tasty, but do I really need it? Heck no!

    Substitutions in the evenings: a 55 cal beer instead of a glass (or 3) of wine, or a big cup of really strong-flavored tea on the nights I need to not drink alcohol at all (ie after a cut-loose weekend, or before an athletic competition).

    Focusing on the accomplishments instead of the mistakes is also essential–every evening, I write down what I’m proud about having done that day. At first the question really stumped me, but I kept at it and was able to focus more and more on good behavior, rather than my screw-ups. I also keep a daily weight log, and check a box if I 1) ate responsibly, 2) exercised, 3) drank at all and if so how much, and 4)other goals like playing my flute or keeping in touch w/ friends or having a productive day at work. It’s amazing what a difference it makes to keep a record of what you’ve achieved–that way see the small improvements, the proof that you CAN change over time, and you stay motivated! :)

  • Jun 8, 2010 wbailey

    Andy, you asked why drink water, and I just ran across this: That gives you all the reasons you need!

  • Jun 8, 2010 PatriciaW

    Just read “More Time Now” which Dustin over at EngagedMarriage shared. Mind blowing. Perhaps potentially the most powerful thing I’ve ever read, after the Bible. Wow. I’m definitely sharing, and I’m definitely going to take action, beginning with my weekly 1 hr appt with myself.
    PatriciaW´s last blog ..A Tacky Invitation to my 30-Day Exercise Challenge My ComLuv Profile

  • Jun 9, 2010 Megan Singleton

    Hi Dave, I recieved your link from one of the people i interviewd, i would love to write something about yoou link on my blog SuccessBabes. Can you send me an email in regards to this.

    Thank you

  • Jun 9, 2010 rennie

    how do i start changing bad habits ,when i dont feel bad about them ,but my partner makes me all the time aware how self destructive they are .[been abused as a child ]and dont seem to have long term memory when we are talking about it .in 2 or 3 days its all gone again .like a seperate part of me talks about it but doesnt pass it on to me .help dave ………

  • Jun 9, 2010 Val

    Old habits sure are hard to change. Instead of a junk food snack in the morning, my plan is to eat an apple Sometimes I remember to eat that, sometimes not. Depends on whether I’m acting consciously or not. (sigh)
    Val´s last blog ..Jun 6, The Effects of Cortisol and Stress My ComLuv Profile

  • Jun 9, 2010 Ash


    Rock on with this series! Loving it.

    Once upon a time when I actually went to the gym-*whistles innocently*-I remember one of my most effective tricks for staying on the treadmill for longer than I thought I could, was to envision myself sliding on that size 4 pair of shorts that I used to fit into…and remembering how good that felt. Subsequently, everytime I went to take a bite out of a Tastycake, I’d ask myself what I wanted more–that ooey, gooey chocolate, or actually fitting into my damn clothes. :)

    Enjoying your writing, Dave. Also have your launch book with Naomi–simply adore.

    Ash´s last blog ..How to Start a Revolution (Or 3 Ways to Change the World) My ComLuv Profile

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