A New Strategy For Breaking Old Habits (That Actually Works)

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unnamed-1Illustrated by Mary Schafrath.
In my forthcoming book on habits — the most fascinating subject ever — I explore the various strategies that we can use to shape our habits, such as monitoring, convenience, the delightful treats, and the hilarious loophole-spotting. One effective strategy is the clean slate.

The fresh start, the do-over, or the new year is a crucial time, because it offers tremendous opportunity for forming new habits — but it can also pose great risk to existing habits that we want to maintain. It’s important to stay alert for signs of a clean slate, because too often, we fail to use the opportunity of a clean slate to form a desirable habit, or we fail to recognize that a clean slate is triggering a habit that we don’t want to form.

The slate may be wiped clean by a change in personal relationships: marriage, divorce, a new baby, a new puppy, a break-up, a new friend, a death. Or, the slate may be wiped clean by a change in surroundings: a new apartment, a new city, even rearranged furniture. Or, some major aspect of life may change: a new job, a new school, a new doctor. Even minor changes can amount to a clean slate — a change as seemingly insignificant as taking a different route to work, or watching TV in a different room.

One reader wrote: “I’ve always been a regular exerciser, and the weirdest thing happened once my son started taking the bus to school. I stopped. Why? Because my routine was to drop him off at school, then go right to the gym every week day. It was an ingrained habit. Once he stopped taking the bus, the trigger was gone.”

The clean slate is so powerful that it’s a shame not to exploit it. And, by making ourselves conscious of times of beginning, we can harness these crucial moments of opportunity to forge new and better habits. For example, in one study of people trying to make a change — such as change in career or education, relationships, addictive behaviors, health behaviors such as dieting, or change in perspective — 36% of successful changes were associated with a move to a new location.

So, if you’re moving, take advantage of your clean slate! What might you do differently in this new environment? And, be wary of allowing new, bad habits to form. It’s a Secret of Adulthood for habits: Temporary often becomes permanent, and what we assume is permanent often proves temporary.

Here’s my question for you: Have you experienced this? Did you find that you changed a big habit after a major change, such as getting married or divorced, moving, or starting a new job? Or after a small change? I’d love to hear examples from other people.

Beginnings are so important; in fact, two habit-formation strategies take advantage of beginnings, clean slate and first steps. Habit-formation is an endlessly fascinating subject. If you want to know when my book goes on sale, sign up here.
Gretchen Rubin, author of two New York Times bestsellers, is our go-to gal for the best get-it-together know-how. Every week, she'll be dishing up her wisdom straight from her popular blog, The Happiness Project, to get you on the road to a more productive, healthier you. Here's to a 2014 resolution that sticks!