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Jill woke up, went into her bathroom and paused for a moment as she looked in the mirror. She told herself, “This will be the day I’ll make the changes to improve my health and happiness.” She was tired of feeling sluggish, mentally tired every day, and not happy with how tight her clothes felt.

Jill vowed to do several things differently. She didn’t write down any goals, she had no real game plan or a strategy for stopping old bad habits and replacing them with new better ones. However, now that she made her decree she was motivated and wanted things to change.

If you can relate to Jill’s spontaneous self-declaration you may also relate to what really happened for her. When she left her apartment that morning, life’s demands and pressures didn’t change, so it was easier for her to revert to old bad habits than to start new ones. After about three weeks of trying, and little to show for her effort, she had given up on her quest.

This micro skill provides tips on changing old habits into new ones.


A habit is a pattern of learned behaviour, such as snacking at night in front of the TV. Sam starts watching TV around 9 p.m., and within a half hour a trigger goes off that it’s time to get a snack – usually a salty snack with no nutritional value. Sam doesn’t fight this urge. He simply gets up and gets a snack to satisfy his craving. One of his favourites is chips.

Sam has created a daily routine and habit where he sits in front of the TV to escape the stress of work, using snacks to help himself feel better. His snacking habit is easy, as it’s become learned, automatic and in the moment seems to be meeting a need to feel good. If asked if this habit is good for his long-term health, Sam would know it’s not. However, each evening he’s not thinking about consequences; he’s thinking about satisfying an urge at that moment.

Sam has created an unhealthy habit.

The first step toward changing a habit is to define the habit you want to change and break it down, in Sam’s case, dissecting the patterns (people and place) and triggers (stress).


Changing behaviour begins with clarifying what is going to be changed, why it should change, and the benefits of making a change – and then developing a new good habit to replace the old bad habit.

Deciding to change a behaviour is the first step. Setting expectations for how and when is the next. Changing behaviour and creating new habits is a process, not an event. Accept that failure, slips, and frustration are parts of the learning curve. Unless there’s clarity on the benefits, the gap between stopping an old habit and learning the benefits of a new one is really the wasteland of why many people don’t make a change that sticks.

Wanting to change is important. However, accepting that there will be some transition and discomfort is a part of the journey that can help create the resolve and the grit required to stay focused on the end goal.

If Sam would replace chips with vegetables, this habit change would be positive. But until he experiences the benefits, this change may not be rewarding, and may even provide a sense that he’s losing out.


Changing behaviour for long-term results begins with creating a frame of reference that doesn’t feel overwhelming.

Define the habits you want to stop and start – Be clear on what the unhealthy or unwanted behaviour is, what new habit will replace it, and the benefits of doing so. For old habits to go away there mu–st be something new to fill the void that makes it easier to stop the old habit. We seldom forget an old habit, so it’s beneficial to set realistic expectations and accept that there’s often a learning curve for an old habit to be replaced by a new one.

Make one decision at a time – When learning a new habit, keep focused in the moment by concentrating on making better micro decisions, one decision at a time. Instead of thinking about how long it will take to master a new habit, create the mindset that it will take as long as it takes, and focus on making one good decision at a time.

Acknowledge success – As you begin adopting a new being by being mindful and present, after each time you make a good micro decision, acknowledge it. This can build confidence and resolve to push through any discomfort that often happens when learning a new habit. Learning to run a marathon involves training the mind and body to increase endurance, one step, one kilometre at a time. By focusing on what’s good about the new habit versus spending energy focusing on why it’s hard can reduce the risk for relapsing to the old habit.

Bill Howatt is the chief research and development officer of work force productivity with Morneau Shepell in Toronto.

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