How to Change Habits to Transform Results

But I have no idea how to change.  I’ve been doing this for so long!”  Have you said this?  It comes up a lot in coaching and when it does it usually means it is definitely, really, absolutely time to change.  But it’s time to do it differently.  It’s time to transform.

Why is change so hard?

From a neuroscience-y perspective, when we have a habit that we’ve done over and over again we are reinforcing the same neural pathways.  Think of this like carving a piece of wood.  Each time we take the same action, or have the same thoughts, we are deepening a groove.  Most of those enduring habits that we struggle to give up are things we’ve been doing, maybe for as long as we remember.  We probably took the first chunk of wood off sometime during childhood and since then have been going over it again and again and a gain.  So when we want to make a change, what we’re doing is trying to lay in a new neural path, we’re trying to take the blade situated in the deep groove wood and start a new vein into virgin wood.  For the first time.  It’s scary – what if it doesn’t go where we want?  What if it leads someplace worse?  What if we do it WRONG and have to do it again?  And even if we can be brave and commit to doing it anyway, it’s hard, because we have to push through the edge of what we’ve spent a lifetime creating.

ImageSo you muscle up all your energy and you do it.  Once.  Congratulations!  You’ve chartered new territory!  You’ve taken action and you have made… a change!  But guess what?  That deep groove is still there and it is so easy to fall into.  The trick now is to keep going back over that new line in the wood.  We call this a practice.  This new pattern may never be as deep as the original. But every time you do it, it will get easier and feel more natural.  That deep groove is not going to get filled in, but it loses its attraction every time you repeat your practice.  This is how change leads to transformation.  Even better, now that you’ve done it, the very notion of taking new action against other habits becomes less daunting.

Ok great, so now you have a handle on how this works in the brain… what do you do?

Case: Changing Self-Sacrificing Behaviors

Last week I worked with a client whose habit was that she consistently puts the needs of others ahead of her own, even if that completely depletes her own energy and leaves her exhausted, or repeating relationship mistakes, or failing to ask for what she really wants at work and at home.  She wanted to change but she couldn’t.  She had been doing this for so long.  I asked her to think about some specific times recently where she had practiced that habit and she realized that she was doing it right then – she had an impulse to tell her lover to spend time with someone else instead of her because the other person needed him more.  She knew that this would mean she’d feel lonely and resigned to being without her love, but she just couldn’t see herself asking him to spend more time with her.

We needed to identify the underlying assessment that drove the habit.  When I asked her to dig deep into what was driving the impulse she discovered that she couldn’t be seen as selfish.  She’d been doing this since she was a child and it was a behavior that was modeled to her by her mother.

Next we needed to understand how the assessment was serving her.  We all start that first stroke on the wood because we need to solve for something.  We found that by making this sacrifice she would be a good person.  She needed to make this sacrifice to ensure that the other parties were taken care of because if she didn’t, who would?  Naturally, they couldn’t take care of themselves.  As we continue to dig into the drivers of her habit we found that while they might’ve served her at some point and may still be doing so now, there were some aspects of it that were not as altruistic as she may have at first believed.   And from there we were able to step into the cost of this habit.

What has this habit and assessment been costing her?  As she thought about her mother as a model of this behavior she realized that she didn’t actually see her mother as being entirely selfless.  In fact, she saw her mother as something of a martyr.  She saw her as somewhat controlling.  That’s not what she wanted for herself.  Moreover, she was simply not able to achieve her heart’s desire – to spend quality time with her love.  In fact, what time she did spend with him she spent feeling guilty for taking it away from someone else or resentful that it couldn’t be more.
We needed to take a new path.  Remember at the beginning, the sole alternative to self-sacrifice she could see was to selfishly ask for more time with him and that hard… and it didn’t feel right to her either.  So now I asked her to come up with a possibility where she could still be a good person, but not have to control other people’s choices and she immediately realized that she could ask him to decide.  Her first attempt at the request sounded like “I think someone else needs your time more than me so if you want to spend time with that person it’s ok…”  That neural pathway is DEEP.  And sneaky.  Because this new action certainly sounded a lot like her original impulse. She landed on a request that sounded more like this “I have a habit of making self-sacrificing decisions that don’t really result in my happiness and also tend to control others choices and I’d like your help in establishing a new practice.”  This not only sets up a new context for the request, but it also invites such a deep level of intimacy in the relationship.  “I notice that other people in your life need you right now.  And I would love to spend more time with you as well.  I don’t want to feel like I’m selfishly taking time away from someone else who might need you.  What do you think would be a good way to address the needs of others while still appreciating my desire for quality time with you?”  And like that, a new neural pathway was born.

It was too hard to commit to unilaterally making a selfish decision, but before the expanded awareness, that was the only possibility that felt available to her.  Once she could see past her obstacles, she was able to SHIFT and discover a completely new solution to the same problem, and this was one she could commit to.


Step 1: Identify and articulate the habit you would like to change.

Step 2: Identify the assessments that underlie that habit.

Step 3: How have the assessments / habits been serving you?

Step 4: What has been the cost of holding these assessments and repeating the habits?

Step 5: What are some new possibilities that would continue to SERVE your need, but without incurring the COST?

Step 6: Commit to practicing your new possibilities


Many thanks to the client for allowing me to share this experience.  We hope that you are able to create practices that generate transformative change in your life!

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