How to Break Old Habits and Make New Ones Stick

Written by Melissa Kessler, MA, PCC

As a coach, I regularly help leaders with breaking old habits and developing new ones that will serve them better. The first step in changing any behavior is to determine why you want to change it. Change is hard because it requires energy and effort. Therefore, you need a substantial reason for the change, or you won’t put forth the effort it takes to make it happen. A couple of questions I ask my clients to help them find a deeper reason are, “What type of leader/person do you want to be?” and “How do you want to be remembered?” If you constantly tell yourself, “I am a leader/person who… listens to others… is calm under pressure… gives more praise than criticism, etc.”, you are more likely to act in ways that are consistent with this belief.

Once you have identified the behavior you want to change and your deeper reason for changing it, the next step is to identify what you will do instead. It’s much easier to stop old habits when you replace the behavior you want to change with a new one. If you want to stop interrupting, then you must replace it with actively listening. This means focusing your full attention on others when they are speaking and having a mindset of seeking to understand others rather than simply making your point heard.

In the book Atomic Habits, James Clear gives several tips for breaking old habits and starting new ones, which are briefly described below. For an extensive explanation on all ways to effectively cement new behaviors, I highly recommend getting the book. (The book is hyperlinked here: Atomic Habits. You can also download his cheat sheet here: atomichabits.com/cheatsheet.)

Break Old Habits – Example: Stop eating junk food.

  • Make it invisible (cue) – Example: Don’t keep junk food out where you will see it. Keep it hidden or put up in a high cabinet where you won’t see it.
  • Make it unattractive (craving) – Example: Remind yourself that “healthy/fit people don’t eat junk food” and highlight the costs of eating unhealthy.
  • Make it difficult (response) – Example: Don’t buy junk food in the first place, so it’s not in your house. If you must leave your house to get junk food, then you’re less likely to eat it.
  • Make it unsatisfying (reward) – Example: Get an accountability partner that will watch your behavior or that you must tell how many times you ate junk food during the week. Better yet, agree to pay this person some amount of money each time you eat junk food.

Create New Habits – Example: Eat healthy snacks instead.

  • Make it obvious (cue) – Example: Keep healthy snacks out where you will see them.
  • Make it attractive (craving) – Example: Pair something you enjoy with eating healthy such as listening to your favorite song. Remind yourself that you are a healthy person that eats healthy food and highlight the benefits of eating healthy.
  • Make it easy (response) – Example: Cut up fruits and vegetables ahead of time and package them in baggies so they are easily accessible and easy to take and go.
  • Make it satisfying (reward) – Example: Give yourself a reward when you eat healthy snacks such as watching your TV favorite show. You can also track your healthy eating on a chart or use a habit tracker app, and then buy yourself a reward at the end of the week if you achieve your weekly goal.

I hope you are able to use this information to help you stop old habits and create ones. I can tell you from experience that unless you are truly motivated to change your behavior because of a deeper reason for it, the change won’t stick. You must have the right mindset in order to make lasting change. All of our behaviors are driven by our beliefs. Therefore, if you change your beliefs, then your behavior will follow. Start by examining your beliefs and determining the type of person or example you want to be and the type of life you want to live. May you live your best life each and every day.

“We change our behavior when the pain of staying the same becomes greater than the pain of changing.” – Henry Cloud

“The self-image is the key to human personality and human behavior. Change the self-image and you change the personality and the behavior.” – Maxwell Maltz

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