Stopping a Habit vs. Starting a New One

When I was growing up, it was common to let kids play alone or go for walks by themselves. My parents liked to visit with an older couple who lived in a very rural area and after I’d run out of things to occupy myself in their house, I’d walk down the driveway to the road and turn left. Every time. Even though I wanted to go right. It was an unconscious habit that didn’t serve me very well.

Years later, before we had smartphones and turn-by-turn directions, my tendency to turn left took me on a few unnecessary detours. I learned to plan trips ahead of time and I also made sure my internal sense of direction was turned on. When I was aware and had a plan, I could override my habit of turning left.

Awareness Helps Reduce Errors and Accidents

James Clear writes about the “point-and-call” process that is used by workers in New York City’s subway system during safety checks in his book Atomic Habits. Instead of just looking at specific things, workers point to each item as it’s being checked and then calls out the item. Pointing and calling has reduced errors by 85 percent and accidents by 30 percent in the subway system.

Clear goes on to suggest that the way to become aware of behaviors in your personal life is to create a checklist of things you do. Everything from lying in bed too long in the morning to staying up too late at night. Then evaluate and score each thing on the list with a + (positive habit), – (bad habit), or = (neutral habit). If you check your phone too often, that might get a – sign. If reading is important and useful, it would get a + sign.

The purpose of this activity is to raise awareness, not to give yourself another reason to be self-blaming. When you find yourself repeating a behavior, lying in bed too long (if doing that causes other problems down the line), say to yourself, “No, I’m not going to do that today.” Hearing yourself say No will remind you that there are consequences for that behavior. It’s hard to ignore something if you talk out loud to yourself about it.

What about Creating New Habits?

Mason Currey writes in his book Daily Rituals that “grand creative visions translate to small daily increments…one’s working habits influence the work itself…”

If old habits make change difficult, then wouldn’t it be better to create new habits and avoid negative consequences for that habitual behavior?

The biggest barrier to changing behavior to create a good habit is lack of planning. Hundreds of studies have shown that intentions are implemented more often when intentions are written down, or when we make a verbal commitment to do something as well as writing it down. Leaving things up to chance and hoping that you’ll remember is a risky strategy.

I have plenty of experience in the “leave it up to chance” strategy, which isn’t really a strategy at all. It’s the result of not working out a plan to adhere to in the first place.

Bottom Line: Behavior Change Requires Awareness and Planning

All behavior is a response to someone or something. If you want to change or replace a behavior, the first step is to become aware of the behavior. Maybe creating a list of everything you do in a day is too much (I’m there with you on that one), but if you’re aware of some behavior you do want to change, start there. Decide what you want to do instead and create a plan for change, such as pairing the new behavior with something you already enjoy doing.

If you’re serious about changing habits or creating new habits, I recommend that you read Atomic Habits by James Clear to get a more comprehensive understanding. I’ve read several books on this topic, and Atomic Habits may actually help you not only change habits but also maintain new habits if you’re ready to move forward.

p.s.

Come to think of it, turn-by-turn directions are a form of “point-and-call.” Using turn-by-turn directions has sure cut down on my navigation errors!

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