A (slightly) older reader wrote to me recently, wanting to know how to change her bad habits ingrained after so many many years of doing them. She wanted to know, “Is it too late to change?”
And I can understand the feeling. Doing bad habits for years makes them deeply entrenched, and getting out of that trench might seem impossible, hopeless.
I once was stuck, and felt the weight of built up bad habits crushing, smothering, burying me. I felt helpless, like I had no control over myself, and was too discouraged to even try to change.
This discouragement is what does it. It’s not that changing bad habits is impossible. But if we are so discouraged we don’t try, we will never change them. To try and to fail is of little consequence, but to never start at all is fatal to the habit change.
And I’m here to tell you, that changing bad habits is not impossible. No matter how long you’ve done them, no matter how many decades.
It can be done. By you. By taking a single step.
Know as you start that you aren’t changing a mountain. You don’t have to change years of bad actions. Those actions are gone — they’ve evaporated into the ether, and you can forget them. Forgive yourself for them, then forget them.
You don’t need to run a marathon to change a habit. You just need to take a step. And you can take a step.
Consider for a moment your bad habit. You might have a dozen, but choose an easy one. Not the one you’re most afraid of — the one you think you can lick.
Take a step back and think about this habit. When do you do it? What things trigger the habit — stress, food, drinking, socializing, boredom, sadness, waking, being criticized? What need does the habit fulfill for you? Know that it does fulfill a real need, and that’s why you keep doing it.
Realize something — stop here to drive home for yourself a crucial, crucial point: you must realize that you don’t need this habit to fulfill this need. You don’t need the habit. You can deal with stress in healthier ways. You can beat boredom. You can cope. You do not need the habit, and you will learn better ones with practice.
You might be feeling a bit overwhelmed at this point, but you’ve done the hardest part. Now you just need to take one more little step.
Commit to yourself to make a small tiny insignificant but powerful step each day. Commit fully, not half-assed. Commit by writing it down, and putting it up on your wall. Commit by telling a friend about it, and asking for help. Commit by putting it on Facebook, Twitter, Google+, your blog, a forum you frequent. Be all in.
Find a replacement habit. One that is healthier. One that fulfills the need. One that is easy. One that you can do after your trigger, instead of your bad habit. One that you enjoy and will look forward to. If you need to relieve stress, for example, consider walking, or pushups, or deep breathing, or self-massage.
You’re now ready to climb out of your trench. Remember, just a tiny tiny step.
Notice your urge to do the habit. Pause. Don’t do the bad habit. Let the urge pass, then do your new replacement habit.
Repeat, noticing the urge, letting the urge pass, not doing the bad habit, doing the good habit instead. You might mess up, but that’s OK. You’ll get better with practice.
Practice as often as you can, every day. You’ll get really good at it. Don’t worry about how long it takes. Keep doing it, one urge at a time.
Know, Consider, Realize, Commit, Find, Notice, Repeat, Practice. These are easy steps that don’t take a lot of work. You can do them as you sit here, reading this post.
It’s never too late. There is no habit that can’t be broken by the pressure of a single footprint. Make that footprint by taking a single step, today.
It’s Not Too Late to Change Your Habits was originally posted on Zen Habits on 2/21/12.