Dropped Like a Bad Habit

When we think about making a change in our lives, we often think about habits. These little subconscious processes dictate so much about our daily lives, and they’re easily identifiable when we want to alter the course we’re taking.

But changing habits can be difficult. It’s not just a matter of will: Neuroscience and behavioral psychology are involved, and we’re often fighting against our brains’ natural tendencies when we try to disrupt ingrained behavior.

Owen Fitzpatrick has been studying habits and behavioral change for more than two decades. The globetrotting psychologist is an authority in how to shape behavior through belief—a topic he’s examined in nine books and through presentations to hundreds of prominent organizations.


Not all habits are bad, of course. Optimizing our behavioral patterns includes identifying and leaning into the good habits we already practice. “Optimization is about looking at what you’re already doing, getting down to the micro actions, which are your habits, and then determining if there’s a way to make them better,” explains Fitzpatrick.

Maybe you already have a good habit of getting up early to get a jumpstart on your workday. Once you’re up and in your workspace, can you build in more efficiencies to optimize the time you’ve given yourself? Perhaps you could knock out simple, routine tasks, like answering client emails or doing billing.

Behavioral change also involves determining which habits are leading to problems then taking action to fix them. Sometimes changing habits is about replacing them. Sometimes it’s about creating new ones. Sometimes we just have to stop destructive habits. To sort this out we need to be aware of all our habitual actions. “Your habits lead up to your routines. And your routines will then dictate your experiences and what results you get in your everyday life,” says Fitzpatrick.


In an effort at efficiency, our brain creates shortcuts to make things easy and automatic. Whenever there’s change, these shortcuts get rerouted and require a lot of cognitive resources. “In other words, our brains have to work really, really hard whenever we change something,” says Fitzpatrick.

When it comes to changing a habit, we’re essentially reprogramming these connections, and we need to ask a number of questions:

  • What is going on in my life that I want to change?
  • What happened to cause me to want to make a change?
  • Do I really want to change?
  • What habits are leading me down my current path?
  • What habits do I want to change?
  • What new habit do I want instead?

Be clear on the answers to these questions, allowing yourself no ambiguity around what you’re trying to change and why. Having the discipline to change a habit can be difficult, so understanding why you’re doing it is critical for maintaining your motivation.

With these questions answered, the next step is preparing to execute a change in a specific way. This entails devising a clear plan of how you’ll engage in the habit-changing process, when and where you’ll do it, and how you’ll measure success. This includes preparing yourself for likely obstacles and plotting how you’ll deal with them.

Set up your surroundings to make the new habit easier and the old habit more difficult. Let’s say you’re trying to get up early and go for a run before work. Lay out your running clothes the night before so your path to the new behavior is easier in the morning.


Once you’ve answered these questions, you’re in prime position to become an architect of change. Three tips: Make the change clear, make it fun, and make it rewarding. If you can create a process that makes the change you’re embarking on easy and enjoyable, you’ll have a greater chance of success. Fitzpatrick recommends a few techniques to advance this process. 

Organize your environment. Set up your surroundings to make the new habit easier and the old habit more difficult. Let’s say you’re trying to get up early and go for a run before work. Lay out your running clothes the night before so your path to the new behavior is easier in the morning.

To discourage a negative habit, set up your environment to make that behavior more difficult. One example comes from Google, which encouraged employees toward healthier eating by putting the best food options up front in the break rooms and moving less healthy options to less convenient locations. People still had a choice, but the environment discouraged one behavior while encouraging another.

Stack your habits. Habit stacking is a way to package multiple productive behaviors to encourage adoption of a new, positive habit. Maybe you already drink plenty of water each day, and you want to develop a new habit of stretching your muscles. Every time you refill your water, stretch. Refill your water, stretch again. If you’re refilling your water five or six times a day, you’re also stretching that often. By stacking the new behavior on top of your existing habit, your brain connects the two and you’re more likely to continue them both.

Bundle your temptations. Temptation bundling involves pairing something you look forward to with a new habit you’re trying to develop. If you’re trying to develop a habit of walking a couple of miles a day, you might increase your motivation by listening to your favorite podcast while walking. Here’s the trick: Allow yourself to listen to that podcast only while you’re walking. If you want to hear the next episode, go for a walk. By pairing these activities, you create an association between walking and your favorite podcast. The desire to listen to the podcast is motivation to engage in the new behavior.


One of the most common questions about behavioral change is how long it takes to acquire or discontinue a habit. Bad question, notes Fitzpatrick, “That question implies that you’re waiting for the time that you don’t have to work at it anymore. If you’re doing that, then your mindset is already messed up. You’re already thinking to yourself, This is going to be a pain, I just want to do it until the point I don’t even think about it.

Instead of looking for an end date to the habit-changing process, reset your thinking about the behavior and how it relates to your identity. Frame the new habit as part of who you are. “Whenever you believe you’re a certain type of person, it’s easy for you to do the habit that fits into that identity,” explains Fitzpatrick. “Whereas if you don’t believe you’re that type of person, even if you engage in a new habit, you will eventually go back to your old way of doing things.”

If you don’t believe you’re a healthy eater but you’re actually eating healthy, a process known as cognitive dissonance eventually emerges. This happens when there is tension between two sets of competing beliefs. The brain tries to alleviate this tension, which may lead you to revert to old behavior that’s more in line with your beliefs about yourself. To make a positive change, adjust your mindset about who you are and who you are becoming.


To motivate yourself or others to make a change, the change needs to be important and it needs to be urgent. If you’re trying to help your staff implement new, positive habits at your studio, create a compelling vision for them. Help them understand why the change is critical to the business and why it needs to be done in a particular time frame. Circle back to the why to help with motivation, be clear about how the new behavior can be implemented, and outline the obstacles you might face together. Then establish a way to track progress so everyone can feel a sense of control when it comes to implementing the change. “By doing all of that, you’ll set everyone up for success,” says Fitzpatrick. 

Jeff Kent is the editor-at-large.