- Scott H Young - https://www.scotthyoung.com/blog -

How to Change a Habit

Habits are patterns that run our lives. Habits take the pressure off of needing to consciously control every aspect of daily life. These patterns run in the background allowing us to focus our efforts on more important things. Our brain creates these patterns to help us run common tasks on autopilot so we don’t have to spend our attention on them.

Despite the incredible power of habits, there are probably a few habits you’d like to remove. I’m going to go over exactly how we can remove these negative habits in our lives in this article and replace them with habits that will make our life better. Once you master the ability to change your habits you can rapidly increase your own personal growth.

If you were a computer, then your habits would be your software. Habits are the little routines you automatically execute. Your computer handles millions of interactions without input from yourself, just as you have thousands of tiny habits that control your behavior. The biggest problem we have is we don’t really spend enough time thinking about how to remove those pieces of software we think are destructive. We might try to remove it completely and various other pieces of software can collapse.

If you want to remove or change a habit you really need to spend more time planning it. Changing habits can often be a delicate surgery, especially for really entrenched habits. If you are one of the people that simply likes to use willpower to change all of your habits, then it is going to be much more difficult to see permanent results. Removing with willpower alone is like trying to conduct that surgery with a club. Instead, we need to find our scalpel.

Step One: Analyze

The first step to change any habit is to analyze why we have the habit in the first place. If a habit were entirely destructive, we wouldn’t use it. The reason any habit exists is because at some level it gives us positive reinforcement. Even if that positive reinforcement is incredibly underwhelmed by the pain it creates, it has to exist, otherwise we simply wouldn’t participate in the habit.

If we are trying to create a brand new habit, we need to consider how this new habit will impact our existing ones. A habit can only be changed, never removed or added. So if you are trying to add the habit of exercising, then you are going to have to replace the habit from what you would normally do with that time. If you want to wake up earlier, you are going to have to replace your old habit of sleeping in.

Analyze how making this habit modification will impact the other software you are currently running. Take time to ask yourself how this will impact the various aspects of your life. Will adding more exercise take away from your family, business or leisure time? What aspects are going to be affected and how?

Step Two: Form a Strategy

Now that you have analyzed how your habit will affect your life, you need to form a strategy for introducing the new strategy. Likely you will need to make a bunch of minor habitual adjustments in order to smoothly transition your new habit. Identifying as many of these minor changes will be the difference between making habit surgery go with a scalpel or with a club.

If you are starting a new diet, you need to identify all the other things you will need to adjust to compensate. Will you need to buy new food? Will you need to stock new food? Will you have to change the food you order at restaurants? Will you have to learn how to cook this new food? Will you have to replace your habit of eating when stressed to a different activity?

The failure of most habit changes lies in this step. Most people do a brief overview of step one and then jump right into surgery. Then when they fail they believe that the problem was they didn’t have enough willpower. Willpower can be a good tool, but it can’t compensate for poorly conceiving this step.

Your strategy should be comprehensive to the scale of the habit you wish to replace. When I decided not to eat any animal products, I spent a lot of time in this phase to ensure that the whole process went smoothly, and to this day I don’t consume any animal protein. Some habits are relatively simple, like limiting e-mail checking or web surfing. Others like lifestyle and dietary ones may take hours of proper planning.

Step Three: Prepare

Preparation is the third step. In this phase you need to change your intellectual need to change a bad habit into a good one, and add the emotional component. Tony Robbins [1] has some great info on this step as he says that you need to change the neurological associations you are making. You need to associate incredible pain to your old habit and incredible pleasure to your new one.

To associate pain you need to find emotional evidence that really reinforces your change. If you are trying to quit smoking, go visit people who are dying of emphysema and lung cancer. Look at graphic pictures of what happens to your body when you smoke. Take a look at your friends and family and think about the effect on their lives if you were gone. Even if you are young right now, think about your grandchildren, wouldn’t you like to know them?

Just from reading this I think you can get the idea. The pain needs to be real and tangible. You need to feel agonized, disgusted and sick when you think of going back to your old habit. If you don’t have this emotional connection, a lasting change will be much harder, if not impossible.

Now, you need to associate incredible pleasure to the new habit. Go talk to people who have kicked the smoking habit for good and ask them how it has improved their life. Go to online support forums and talk to friends and family that you think will support you. Think of how your life will be once you will be able to breathe clearly, knowing that you don’t have those toxins in collecting in your lungs.

I always laugh when I hear people asking if they can still eat what they want when they are on their diet. Diets that proclaim that you still will be able to eat all those foods you love. What do you think made you overweight and unhealthy in the first place?!?

You need to get to an emotional threshold where the idea of putting those potato chips and fast food in your mouth feels disgusting. You also need to love the idea of eating whole grains, vegetables and lighter meals. If you still love greasy foods, you’ll never be able to give them up.

Step Four: Act!

If you have successfully gone through the past three steps you probably can’t wait to get your new habit started. Now is the time to set in place your new habit and condition it so it becomes a part of your life. Take that piece of software and run it through your computer until it becomes fully integrated.

There are many ways to do this step. My personal favorite is the 30 Day Trial [2], introduced to me by Steve Pavlina. The basic premise is that you challenge yourself to keep up the habit for 30 days no matter what. After the thirty days are done, the habit is usually suitably reinforced to allow you to continue on automatic.

You can see how I used this process to run a trial to exercise for at least an hour every day in my own life, here [3]. Make sure you make your trial written down, and if you can, make a public commitment. You need to make leverage against yourself to keep from backing down.

Here are some tips for those who want to use the 30 Day Trial method:

1) Use proper goal setting techniques. I briefly wrote about them here [4].
2) If the challenge is particularly tough, keep a journal for your trial. I used this when starting my strict vegetarian diet and it allowed me to work through small obstacles. Remember to write to solve problems! [5]
3) Ensure that the habit will be repeated at least once per day. If your habit is on a weekly basis, you will need to extend the length of the trial in order to properly condition it. I made this mistake by running four week trials (roughly 30 days) which failed miserably because four repetitions isn’t enough to properly condition a habit.
4) Reward yourself! If you are sticking to your habit then you deserve a reward. Just make sure that if you are on a health related diet that reward doesn’t interfere with your challenge. But this could be watching your favorite TV show or going to see your friends. Don’t reward yourself after a week or a month, but as soon as you’ve taken the first few steps.
5) Have fun! Changing your life for the better should be fun. Remember, you are making changes that will allow you more time, joy and fulfillment in the future!


Here are the four steps, once again:

1) Analyze

2) Form a Strategy

3) Prepare (pain and pleasure)

4) Act!

My procedure for changing habits may seem like overkill to some, but overkill is way better than under-kill. I liken this four step process to using a TNT blast to scrape out your habits compared to the conventional method of throwing a few rocks. This process may take a little bit of time, but you will end up saving willpower, energy and your sanity by doing this now.

If you haven’t really experienced a lot of habit changes in your life, then I wouldn’t suggest a massive one to start. Try changing a small habit with this method. Maybe this habit could be reading for fifteen minutes per day. Dietary changes are some of the hardest habits to change, so don’t feel bad if you’ve had trouble with them in the past.

Take control of your life by taking control of your habits to get the most out of your life!