Creatures of Habit

“I really want to change, but...I don’t know how.”

That phrase pierces through every other entry in every journal I’ve ever kept. Plans, goals, aspirations: things I would do if only I could just…do them.

Something I learned after spinning my wheels for years is that a lot of what kept me stuck was trying to make big changes all the time. I didn’t just want to eat right; I wanted to lose 10 lbs in a week. I didn’t just want to be successful; I wanted to be successful TOMORROW. This kind of dramatic goal setting led to inevitable failure…which eventually led to low morale and a loss of trust in myself. Looking back it seems a bit farfetched, but it’s a common trap to fall into: the idea that any meaningful change has to be a BIG change, and that we should be able to make those big changes over night.


The thing about changing our lives, though, is that in order to make those big changes we have to make small ones first. The goals that most of us have can be broken down into smaller steps, and usually those big important goals take a LOT of small steps. These small steps show up in the form of habits: things we do repeatedly and often, usually without thought…things that we’re used to, comfortable with, things that are easy.

Habits have a bad rep, but there are good ones too. Think about brushing your teeth before bed- that’s a habit, and one that most of us practice without thought. Somewhere along the way we figured out that in order to get the desired outcome X(white teeth or no cavities or a painless dentist appointment) we had to do Y (brush our teeth.) We did this for long enough that it became habitual: something we don’t have to think about. I bring this habit up because it demonstrates the transition that we must go through in order to make something a habit: do it for long enough that eventually it just becomes a part of our day, a part of who we are…easy.

When it came to tooth brushing, we probably had an adult standing over us at first, lovingly forcing a healthy habit upon us. But how do we form healthy habits as adults? How do we lovingly force healthy habits upon ourselves? The first key is realizing that we are constantly being controlled by conscious and unconscious processes.

These processes can be broken down into two sections of our mind: system one and system two. System one is quick, unconscious, easy. This system spits out our initial gut reactions; it’s system one that says “yum, chocolate!” and takes a bite. System two takes longer; this area of thought process is more effortful and controlled. It’s system two that pauses and says, “wait, I’m full, put the chocolate down.” You can look at system one as the wild child and system two as the responsible adult. They both co-exist, and within both of these areas lay our desires and habits. The key then, is to manipulate these systems. The key is to wire system one (the effortless system) with habits that will lead you toward your goals.

An idea for creating a new habit is to spell out a goal for yourself and decide how you want to achieve it. One way this is done is through “if-then” scenarios. The “if” part of this scenario is a critical cue, and the “then” part is the goal directed response.

Here’s an example:

Let’s say you want to run a marathon. The only time you can exercise is in the morning, but you are in the habit of sleeping late. At this point, it takes very little effort and thought to sleep, but a LOT of effort to lace up your sneakers and go for a run. In this case, the “if-then” scenario to implement could be: “IF it is 7am, THEN I put on my sneakers and go outside.” Another example could be a big project: let’s say your goal is to write a book, but you’re not setting aside the time to write. In this case the implementation could be: “if it is 2pm, then I sit down at my laptop and write for one hour.”

The “if” part of these scenarios must be a critical cue: something that tells you it’s time to make your goal directed response, although it doesn’t necessarily have to be a time on the clock.

If it is Sunday night, then I prep my meals for the week.”

If I just got paid, then I pay my bills first.”

At first these implementations are effortful and uncomfortable- just like it took a long time to form our old habits, it will take some time to form new ones. The key though, is to remember why we are doing this stuff, and why we want to make changes. It’s also helpful to remember that after a while, chosen habits won’t feel as cumbersome and inconvenient: they will simply be a part of our makeup.

Habits are a part of being human, and it’s inevitable that we fall into them, for better or for worse. But if you’re struggling with big changes, it could be helpful to look at the smaller parts of your day. As Lao Tzu said “A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.” And then another one after that, and then another one after that…until the steps are simply a part of our path: one that we walk with intention, pride, and purpose.