Tired of Your Bad Habits? Here’s the One Thing You Need to Know About Effective Habit Change

Melissa Joy Kong
Melissa Joy Kong / Published February 6, 2014

If you’re reading this, you probably have a habit (or 10) you really want to change. We all get into the habit of doing things that don’t help us become our best selves. Here are just some of the many bad habits people seem to be struggling with these days:

  • Procrastination
  • Not getting enough exercise
  • Eating unhealthy foods
  • Not sleeping enough
  • Overworking
  • Staying productive every day
  • Letting emails pile up and not answering them for weeks or months at a time
  • Spending too much time on social media sites
  • Wasting hours a day browsing the Internet

Do any of these habits sound familiar to you? There are several on this list that I struggle with myself. In fact, I can’t think of a single person I know who isn’t struggling with at least a couple of these bad habits. And this isn’t even close to the full list of bad habits out there.

After reading the list above, some of you are probably starting to panic: “Oh my goodness, I have so much to do. So much to change! Where do I start? How will I get myself to break out of all the bad habits I have? What if I fail? Can I really change?”

If you’re like most people, you made a New Year’s resolution or two. If you’re like most people, you’ve also probably broken one or all of them by now.

It’s common to hear people say New Year’s resolutions don’t work. And it’s true—they don’t. But, for good reason: “resolving” to do something different is only the first of many steps. You also have to:

  1. Figure out exactly and specifically what you want to resolve
  2. Create a detailed plan for making your resolution a reality, and
  3. Exchange your bad habits for great ones through consistent, gradual behavior change.

We totally forget to do these other crucial things. When it comes to the third part, so few of us actually take the time to commit to a set of habits we want to change.

The other big problem is that if you’ve tried to change your habits before and haven’t been successful, there’s a seed of doubt in your mind about your ability to actually change a habit. You need to get rid of that seed of doubt now, because it will percolate in your mind and make just about any habit change impossible, especially once your initial motivation to change dwindles (and it will).

There’s an easy way to do this:

Focus on changing one habit at a time

So, the secret sauce is that simple: it’s all about directing your focus. Leo Babauta, author of one of the most-visited blogs today, Zen Habits, is a leading proponent of tackling one habit change at a time.

Now, if you’re anything like me, right about now you’re probably thinking, “But, if I only focus on changing one habit at a time, it’s going to take too long. I can pull off changing two or three habits at once instead.” I get it; the idea of just doing one thing at a time seems …painfully slow. But think about it: it takes so much energy to unlearn an engrained behavior—and the more you engage in a behavior, like eating unhealthy foods, smoking, procrastinating, etc.—the harder it is to change that habit on willpower and motivation alone. If you can focus on one habit at a time, it will change your life forever (unless you decide to regress and start a crappy habit all over again—don’t do that).

I finally surrendered to the idea of tackling one big habit change every month—a total of 12 new habits every year—and I have to say, it worked better than any other habit change strategy I’ve ever tried before. By implementing this focused habit change strategy last year, I blogged almost every single day in 2013, lost 10 pounds, learned how to single task effectively, and began to answer my emails only twice per day.


Focus on changing or adopting one new habit every 1-2 months for the next 12 months

You can, of course, do your best to make headway with the other 11 habits you want to change. But in terms of total commitment, it is important that you only focus on and completely dedicate yourself to changing one at a time. If all of your energy is placed on just one habit, you are a lot more likely to change it than if your motivation, willpower, commitment, and energy is scattered amongst a number of significant habit changes.

To get you brainstorming about what you’d like to change this year, here is a list of positive habits to consider adopting:

  • Meditate for 10 minutes every morning
  • Don’t hit the snooze button when getting up in the AM
  • Exercise 5 times per week, for at least 20 minutes a day
  • Learn how to single task
  • Get to Inbox Zero once per week
  • Show up 5 minutes early to everything
  • Limit the number of times you check your email daily
  • Don’t eat any food product with more than five ingredients in it

Again, the key is: your energy, commitment, and willpower must be focused on changing only one habit every 1-2 months

This creates the kind of focus and intention toward changing one big habit at a time that will then change your thought patterns and beliefs. In the long-term, you will reap the benefits of changing habits sustainably—the first time around.

You’ve probably heard this before, but it is critical that you make the habits you want to change very specific. Every single one must be measurable. At the end of each month, you must be able to tell whether you’ve succeeded or failed at that month’s habit change. One popular method is SMART goals, which suggests that the strongest goals are: Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Relevant, and Time-bounded. This is a great method to consider as you decide upon the specifics of your habit change outcomes. Having specific and measurable desired outcomes will always be extremely important to your success in creating change.

  • Example of a bad habit change goal: Exercise more frequently
  • Example of a better habit change goal: Exercise more than 2 times a week
  • Example of an even better habit change goal: Exercise 4 times a week (in the morning)

You’ve probably picked up on it already, but the objective with the “one-habit-at-a-time” goal is that each of the habit changes cascade onto one another. Once you learn a habit, you’re supposed to keep it and not just revert to bad habits again. Moreover, as you begin to stick to your word about habit change, you’ll build incredible confidence in your ability to change even bigger, tougher habits later in the year.

The Five-Step Process That Will Help You Change Any Habit Successfully


So, are you ready to change some habits this year?

Here’s how:

1. Identify the 6-12 habits you would really love to change.

Spend some time really thinking about the 6-12 habits that are most getting in the way of you achieving your personal and career goals. Every single habit needs to be tied to a deep desire and commitment to change. Otherwise, it’ll be too easy to break the habit.

Make sure you choose 12 habits that you deeply want to change.

2. Order the habits you want to change according to the amount of impact they will have on your life, from greatest to smallest.

For instance, establishing a healthy diet or a revitalized budget might make more of a difference over the course of the year than getting to Inbox Zero every day or cutting back on how often you check social media.

Figure out what you need/really want to do first. Change your habits in order of greatest impact—do the things that will give you the most strength and resources first; they’ll help you accomplish the rest of your habit changes later in the year.

3. Write down a list of triggers–the things that have stopped you in the past from mastering your habit.

What lessons do you need to unlearn and stories do you need to stop telling yourself (and other people)? Seriously, what mental chatter is getting in your way? Write down your full list of triggers.

Example: You want lose 15 pounds

Potential list of triggers (moments that lead you to engaging in unhealthy eating behaviors):

  • Waiting until the evening to exercise
  • Overeating during the holidays
  • Drinking alcohol during the week at evening work events
  • Eating out at places that serve big portions
  • Telling yourself, “I’ll never get this weight off”

4. Write down a list of positive triggers to replace the negative ones.

Example of positive triggers to replace the bad triggers above:

  • Change your schedule to get up one hour earlier and exercise before work
  • Offer to bring a few holiday dishes (that you prepare yourself) so you know you can eat those and stay healthy
  • Don’t drink alcohol during the workweek
  • Look at a menu and decide what you’ll eat before you get to a restaurant or decide to split an entrée or take half of it to go every time you eat out
  • When you catch yourself saying, “I’ll never get this weight off,” replace the thought with, “Not if you keep being so mean to yourself,” or whatever other phrase works for you

Again, these positive triggers will not work if you don’t have a deep sense of commitment to changing a habit. You have to really understand why you want to change first. Replacing bad triggers with good triggers is just a powerful tool to help you change your behavior once you do figure out what you’re committed to, and why.

5. Keep track of your progress every single day.

It’s great if you want to find an accountability buddy, but you don’t need anyone else to hold you accountable. You are incredibly capable of holding yourself accountable.

I keep track of my habit change goals in my planner. You can keep track of it on your calendar, your phone, or a piece of paper that you keep on your fridge or bathroom mirror (any place where you’ll pass it every single day).

It’s not enough to have a goal—you also have to track your progress. It serves as a powerful reminder of what you’re working toward and how far you’ve come.

Do these five things, and I promise—you’ll be well on your way to fully rocking a new set of habits.

Credits: Photos courtesy Calibe Thompson and Harrisburg U.S. Army Recruiting Battalion via Flickr.

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