Creatures of Habit

Effective advice for lasting habit change

What Went Right? You Focused on One Habit!

One habit at a time is best for self-change.


Occasionally I meet someone who did a 'total personal makeover.' In the space of a few weeks or months, they: 1) started exercising; 2) ate better; 3) read more books; 4) learned a new hobby . . .

Good for that person, I say. Here's the problem, though. That's not how it works for most of us most of the time. That's because effective self-change relies on habit change. Habits are highly ingrained behaviors. They are almost automatic. Changing one habit is hard enough. Trying to change more than one at a time is often a recipe for disaster. So, despite the occasional example to the contrary, my advice is to focus on one habit at a time.

What Went Right?

Almost certainly, that's how you managed to change yourself last time. You decided to get a new habit, and you worked on it. Hard. There were 'back slides' and there were times that you didn't think you could do it. But you did. Getting that new habit was the key to your success. If you wanted to do better at work, perhaps your new habit was an early arrival. If you wanted to be healthier, maybe you worked on cooking from scratch more.

Find a Therapist

Search for a mental health professional near you.

Regardless of what the habit was, focusing exclusively on it was a good idea.

That's because habits are highly ingrained behaviors. They're almost automatic. That means that they are extremely hard to change. They're hard to change because they are supposed to be hard to change. Normally, we depend on them not to change. That means it's going to take a lot of effort to replace an old habit with a good one. That's also why it is hard to get a new one. If new habits 'took' the first couple of times, we could have a lot of less than useful habits cluttering up our repertoires!

Also, because habits are virtually automatic, they do something else for you. They free up your will-power so that you can focus on other matters. If you want to change a habit, or introduce a new one, that's going to take a big bunch of will-power. The problem, as I've written about before, is that will-power is a limited resource and that's where the challenge lies. You're going to need to decide to focus your energies on the habit-change. I'll have more to say on how to use your will-power, and how to get more of it, in coming posts but it does behoove us at this point to remain mindful of the fact that changing a habit, or getting a new one, is a tough business. Why on Earth, then, would you try to change more than one at a time?

What Went Right Last Time? You didn't spread yourself too thin. You worked hard, consciously and deliberately. You got your new habit and self-change was your reward.

Next Post: First Steps: Pick the Habit!

For more from yours truly, visit me at My Bad Habits. I am also on Twitter.

Ian Newby-Clark is a psychologist at the University of Guelph who gives research-based advice for lasting habit change.

more...

Subscribe to Creatures of Habit

Current Issue

Dreams of Glory

Daydreaming: How the best ideas emerge from the ether.