Stopping a Habit vs. Starting a New One

Is it easier to make a new habit or change an existing habit? That’s a question I’ve asked myself since reading Atomic Habits by James Clear. Old habits continue, because they’re, well, habits. Walking is a habit. We don’t have to think how to do it.

When I was five or six and old enough to go on a walk by myself. I’d walk down the driveway to the road and turn left. Every time. Without thinking about it. It was just a habit.

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 habitual pattern of turning left.

Awareness Helps Reduce Errors and Accidents

Clear writes about the “point-and-call” process that is used by workers in New York City’s subway system during safety checks. 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?

What could you do if you wanted to get out of bed sooner to avoid negative consequences for that 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.

Clear recommends “habit stacking” as a way to change behaviors and be more intentional. Habit stacking means pairing a new behavior with an existing positive behavior, or behaviors. If you get up sooner (new behavior), you may enjoy your reading time (existing habit) more because you don’t feel as rushed. Feeling less rushed is the reward you give yourself for changing a behavior. The key is to tie the new behavior to something you already do that is working well for you and that you enjoy.

Bottom Line: Behavior Change Requires Awareness and Planning

All behavior is a response to someone or something and a lot of our behaviors are habitual. 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.


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

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