The Art of Change: Breaking a Habit 1

The Art of Change: Breaking a Habit


I claim that establishing a habit is easier and more cookbook than
breaking a habit. Unlike good habits which are enumerated and
encouraged widely and probably very similar across many people and professions due to
extensive teaching and study, bad habits are quite varied and
idiosyncratic, unique to each person, and likely kept secret out of shame.

So breaking a habit first requires looking at yourself, your
psychological strengths and weaknesses that affect your behavior, the
bad habit in particular, and then an approach using your own unique
psychology to counteract your habit.

Even though in breaking a habit it is harder to take a cookbook
approach, let me try to spell out some behavior patterns and general
approaches based on my own guesses. I think while each person’s set
of strengths and weaknesses are different, these will draw from a few
general traits.

Some personal strengths and weaknesses

  • distraction
    • being easily distracted by something more interesting, more
      urgent, more fun, more blank than current task.
  • intertia (it’s opposite) aka focus
    • once a little bit has been started, it is easy to continue
      working on the same task. Ironically, I experience both
      distraction and inertia for the same tasks — some days I edge
      towards one side or the other.
  • detail orientation
    • bottom up thinking, GTD thinking (next possible action), extreme
  • big picture
    • goal setting, life goals, Covey method, project end goals, hierarchical
      decomposition, structured programming
  • play centric

    • anything as long as it’s not work, even if your work involves
      computers, for instance, you consider using computers for non
      work purposes a form of (enjoyable) play.
  • work centric

    • desire to focus 100% on work no matter what. I am usually this
      way during the work day traditional work hours and I find it to
      be a weakness when it is one of those days that I cannot find
      mental enjoyment to be 100% working, and when I cnanot figure out
      a trick to get me to focus 100% on work.

A pattern of approach to habit breaking

This is going to get less detailed along the lines of “step 1
business plan”, “step 2 get funding”, …, “step n retire wealthy”,
where most of the important details will be in the omitted “…”.

  • First, determine what strengths come easy to you and where you are
    weak. If you notice your tendency to switch from inertia to
    distraction, try to be aware of the “tells” — the surrounding
    events either internal to your mind and body (such as sleepyness,
    heavy meals, preoccupying worry) or external to your self (praise
    improving self-confidence, recent enjoyable conversations with
    friends or family) and write down the “tells” that affect you.

    For instance, I know that my eyes wander from the computer screen
    or even from the application window just before I become
    distracter. I tried an experiment consciously controlling my
    wandering eye by not letting it stray from the app window even
    though my mind started to wander. It was not a surprise that I
    also did not become distracted when I controlled my eyes.
    However, it was a surprise that it took so long to figure out this
    “trick” having been distracted for many years.

  • Second, determine your comfort zone. When you are in a
    comfortable situation, what are you doing? This is a baseline of
    behavior and opinion about oneself. You can then decide if you
    like where you are or if you want to change your behavior.

  • Imagine a different behavior that you want to enjoy, but currently
    do not enjoy or do out of habit. I.e. set a new baseline comfort zone.

  • Figure out how to get from here to there. Maybe a hard one to figure out. I will now omit the details here so that we can actually finish the rest of this up without getting stuck trying to figure out this important step. “…”

  • Apply your “tricks” to modify your behavior. Remind yourself
    every so often about your “tricks” lest you forget and stop using
  • Check back later to see if your zone of comfort has moved to this
    new behavior.


I originally found “tells” as “these are like poker tells” from Mark Taw’s Getting Back to Work via Kuro5hin. It is the idea that you do something just before, or while you’re doing the action you want to stop. In Mark’s case, it was procrastination. Watch out for the “tells” and you’ll figure how to eliminate the resultant action.

From standpoint of stimuli, we can look at what affects our brain.

  • visual – (through eye, looking at familiar things or people, new
    things or people)
  • touch – (through skin, arms, butt, ambient room temperature, tapping of fingers, jiggling of leg)
  • hearing – (through ear – quiet, noise, music, conversation)
  • taste – (through mouth and nose – smells/tastes of food, tastes of beverage)
  • rituals
    some combination of the above, e.g. standing up and stretching, getting out of
    bed and taking a hot shower, leaving dim office and walking out
    in the neighborhood sun and getting a coffee beverage, getting
    drunk and then calling an ex-girlfriend.
  • While some books talk about the kinesthetic sense of body motion, I argue that its main
    impact is in changing your sight, sound, or taste, and so isn’t
    important of itself. As soon as you start moving you are doing
    so to change your environment. One kinesthetic that might be an
    experience in itself is exercise where body motion and the straining body is what
    has most of your attention.
  • stimuli triggers memories, or brings back past feelings. Like
    pavlov’s dog, the stimuli triggers a body response. When we
    consciously or subconsciously stimulate ourselves that triggers a
    response, that’s a “tell”
  • I claim it’s the resulting feeling of the stimuli that we’re after subconsciously and the action that happens to follow, the action we no longer want to do, is just along for the ride.


  • methods you can use to counteract your behavior tendencies.

  • These can be things you pick up from other people, or methods you
    come up with from observing yourself (such as controlling of your
    eye movement to control distraction).

  • Pavlov’s dogs forgot the relationship between the bell and
    food (and the resulting salivation action) when they had to swim for their lives during a flood that
    caused them great stress. While causing yourself great stress is
    a “trick” to stop a behavior I don’t recommend it for your own

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  • Matthew Cornell

    Thanks very much – I’m looking forward to adopting your suggestions.