Changing Our Habits

By Chris Chittenden

“Habits are at first cobwebs then chains”

… Infomaniac 2004

Breaking the habit of a lifetime is a challenge. If we have been doing something a certain way for a long time, we are going to need a concerted effort to change what we do.

We have a saying that change can be “simple but not easy”. For example, it is simple to stop smoking. Do not put a cigarette in your mouth and light it. Simple, right! However, giving up such an addictive habit is not so easy. There are many factors that have people who want to give up smoking fall back into old habits – physical addiction being primary amongst them. We can readily say that giving up cigarettes is simple but not easy.

In general changing our habits is simple but not easy. After all, by definition a habit is something that we have been doing without much thought for some time. The “simple” part is initially recognising and declaring we will be different. Provided we listen to feedback, opportunities to change our habits will show up. However, changing habitual actions of which we are generally unaware is going to be tricky. Most likely, and despite our best intention, we will fall back into our habits at some time. Indeed, if we want to change our habits, it is useful to recognise that such relapses are part of the observed cycle of change.

Why is this? Our habits show up when we do not think about how we should do something, rather we just do it. If we are to change our habits then we must be conscious of our actions as we take them and often this will not be the case. Hence, we will be predisposed to fall back into our old ways of doing things. Many people assess these relapses as failures and, as a result, can quickly give up.

So how can we change our unwanted habits?

One of the most important things we can do to is enrol the support of people around us. All of our learning and attempts at change will take place in the context of our relationships with others. Those close to us are used to our habits; after all they see them a lot. People in our life have a story about us and in subtle (or sometimes not so subtle) ways will transparently seek to hold us in that story. For example, if they hold that we are cynical, they will see cynicism in what we do, even if we are seeking to change that. Their stories act as friction for our change, meaning it is something more we must overcome to change our habits.

We can look to overcome this friction and have those around us help with our attempts at changing our habits by enrolling them in supporting our change. To do so, we cannot simply expect that they will listen to us wanting to be different and support that. This may happen, however we will enhance our chances of their help if we are clear with them about what we are seeking to achieve and directly ask for their help. If we can gain their support for our attempts at change, they can provide us with an awareness of when we are falling back into our old ways. By recognising relapse as a normal part of the change process, we will then be more likely to re-affirm our commitment and improve the possibility we can be different.

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© 2005 Chris Chittenden