How To Change a Negative Habit

I love Iillustrator Julia Rothman‘s annotated New Year’s resolution list for its gentle listing of things she wants to do MORE of and LESS of, rather than the usual all-or-nothing demand for perfection. It got me thinking about the practices I’ve employed to make some changes over the past couple of years.

I’ve learned that the pattern I want to change is a habit of behavior or thinking that is etched into my brain from repeating it so much, similar to a path that has been worn by people repeatedly walking on the same place over and over. Think of artist  Richard Long’s great A Line Made by Walking, which he etched by walking across the same line in a grassy field. That’s what happens in our brains.

Richard Long

To change the habit, I slowly, patiently replace it with a new one, that is, practice a new one until it creates a stronger, deeper “path” than the old one. That requires MANY MANY fails because habits don’t change overnight — just as they weren’t created overnight .

Here’s what I’ve learned to practice to change a habit, in this order:

1. Self-reflection. I need to become aware of the habit I want to change and the behavior to replace it with. Then I start practicing the new behavior to gradually make it a habit.

2: Self-awareness.  I catch myself when I slip into the old routine, which I inevitably will.

3: Gentleness mixed with forgiveness.  I’ve learned to dismantle my brutal critical self and, instead, be very gentle and forgiving of myself for slipping and “failing”.  I find it’s good to laugh at myself rather than taking myself too seriously or piling on criticism.

4: Self-correction. Once I’ve caught myself reverting to my old habit, I let it go and I continue the new behavior.

5: Willingness to repeat this process MANY times without giving up. Over and over again. This is essential.


Changing a habit is really a slow, two-steps-forward-and-one-step-back practice that WORKS if you have patience. And all new habits are subject to tailoring as we change and grow.



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