How To Change a Negative Habit

We 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 us thinking about the practices we’ve employed to make some changes over the past couple of years.

We’ve learned that the pattern we want to change is a habit of behavior or thinking that is etched into our 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, we 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 we’ve learned to practice to change a habit, in this order:

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

2: Self-awareness.  We catch ourself when we slip into the old routine, which we inevitably will.

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

4: Self-correction. Once we’ve caught ourself reverting to our old habit, we let it go and 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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