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Changing Habits Step by Step

Keith McCurdy
Keith McCurdy

Have you ever wanted to change a habit?  It may seem odd to have an article like this around Thanksgiving, but when our normal routines and schedules are interrupted, it is often a great time to focus on behaviors and habits that we want to get rid of or alter in some fashion.  Depending on who you listen to a habit may take three months or even as little as a few weeks to change.  I have heard for years that once you have done something for 21 days, you have created a new habit.  I do wish it was that simple, but changing a habit or behavior is very individual and depends on many factors of the behavior and individual wanting to change.  Regardless of time frame, changing a behavior or habit does follow a simple process whether it is over a few weeks or many months.  How we adapt to this process dictates the speed and effectiveness of our behavior change.

The first stage of changing a behavior is the Unaware stage.  At this point we are not alert to the fact that what we are doing is problematic.  Most routine behaviors or habits are subconscious and therefore do not require any conscious thought to be performed.  Behaviors of this type can exist over long periods of time without the individual being aware of either how frequent they occur or how negative they may be.  For the sake of discussion an example of this is yelling at our children when they need correction.  This is probably the most common complaint that I hear from parents that they want to change.  Very few of us actually think, “I am going to yell at Johnny now.”  We just yell.  Few of us know why or when we started yelling but the habit was built and maintained easily without a second thought.  At some point we realize or it is pointed out to us that we yell too much.  This takes us to the next stage.

Aware After.  At this point many think behavior change has occurred.  It has not.  What has changed is our awareness.  Now we begin to realize after the fact that we have yelled at our kids.  We begin looking back after different situations and our awareness of just how much we do this begins to grow.  This is where it is important to make things more conscious.  When we catch ourselves after, we need to acknowledge what we have done, apologize if needed, and then plan what we will do differently next time.  As we do this each time we catch ourselves after the fact, the process becomes more and more highlighted in our awareness.  This leads to the next stage in the process.

Aware During.  This is where most of the work is done.  Here we start to catch ourselves in the midst of the bad habit or troubling behavior.  We start to think, “Oh man, here I go again.”  The great thing is we are still in the middle of it.  When this occurs, the healthy response is to stop, acknowledge and apologize if needed, and then redirect to a healthier choice of behavior.  The Aware During stage is usually the longest and most painful of the process because our conscious choice is actively battling our habit, head on.  As one parent told me recently, “This is where you have to eat a lot of crow.”  Once we have finally had enough crow, we are pushed into the last stage.

Aware Before.  This is where we have changed the behavior.  A stimulus occurs, we are tempted to respond negatively but our conscious state that is now so used to paying attention to this area of our behavior catches us and we say, “Wait a minute, I am not going that direction” and we choose a healthier response.  At this point the change process is complete and the habit or problematic behavior has been replaced.

So don’t wait until New Year’s for a resolution.  Take time while you have it with family over the upcoming holidays and think what habit or behavior you may need to work on.  Here are a few ideas:  Do you focus too much on the negative and not the positive?  Do you lecture and interrupt instead of listening to you spouse or kids?  Do you regularly make threats instead of using good accountability?  Do you complain instead of giving thanks for the many things we have in this life?  The removal of a bad habit is significant and often what you replace it with is even more valuable.  Have a fun Thanksgiving!

By Keith McCurdy
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