the first step to changing a habit

how to change a habit
We think we know ourselves.
What we do, why we do it.
But we don’t.
When we try to think back, most of us can’t remember everything we ate today, much less what we said, how we said it, and why.
Nor do we know much about our habits and why we’re beholden to them. But we try to change them anyway. We attempt to change our habits even though we know only the most cursory details about them. We try to erase them before seeing what they look like.
This is the approach most of us use, and it’s usually pretty ineffective.

A more effective approach.

Even though that’s the most common approach, that doesn’t mean it’s the only one. The approach I’m introducing today is more effective, gentler, and it feels better. (Cheers to that.)
When you go about changing a habit, your first step is to get to know it, intimately. Think of your habit as a machine. Let’s say it’s a car’s engine. I know nothing about the engines of cars, but I think (I hope?) I know enough to make this metaphor work.
If your goal is to rebuild the engine in a way that works better, it would be best for you to learn about the engine, and how it’s functioning now, before you begin. Otherwise, you’re going to end up with a whole bunch of pieces, a mess, and no idea how to put it all back together.
If, on the other hand, you study the engine before you disassemble it, you’ll be more successful. You’ll know where things go. You’ll know what’s making the wrong noises and what’s out of place. You’ll have a great deal more information, and that will make it infinitely easier and less frustrating to rebuild an engine that works well.
Plus, you’ll learn things about your engine in the process. The next time something breaks, you’ll be able to pinpoint what’s wrong more quickly and easily. Your knowledge about engines will empower you as a mechanic and as a person.

Impartial observation. Hard. And worth it.

As in our engine metaphor, habit change works best when you learn about yourself and your habit before you take any action at all. Observe how your habit currently functions. Observe it as nonjudgmentally as you can. (This is hard, the nonjudgmental part. It can feel painful to observe our habits without doing anything, especially when we perceive that these habits, in their current iterations, are hurting us.)

When you’re looking to change a habit, you don’t want to go straight from unconsciously performing it to unconsciously changing it. You want to bring focused attention to the study of how it functions, gather all the data you can before you start changing things. You can begin by observing the following:

Who: Who performs this habit (you?), and who else, if anyone, is involved?

What: What does the habit look like? What physical objects does it include?

When: When does this habit take place? At the same time each day? Only when certain stimuli occur?

Where: Where does this habit take place? Is it always in the same spot, or does it vary? Are there places where this habit never occurs?

Why: This question is less empirical than the others, and far more subjective. If you don’t know why, take a guess. Is this habit perhaps meeting a certain need? Does it seem to happen for no reason at all? Is it related to suppressing or enhancing any particular emotion?

Get out that notebook, and collect some data.

Your homework for today, should you choose to accept it (homework is always optional with me), is to choose a habit that you’d like to change, get out your notebook, and start writing down your observations. I’m guessing you’ll surprise yourself with what you know, and what you didn’t even know you knew.

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