The Golden Rule of Habit Change

“The Golden Rule of Habit Change: You can’t extinguish a bad habit; you can only change it.”[i] Charles Duhigg

The most effective way to remove one habit is with another; “un clavo saca otro clavo,” one nail drives out another.” Cues in our environment trigger a response. We need to pre-decided what our new response will be. Our Rider cannot hesitate to guide the Elephant down a new path, instead of the well-beaten one. We must give our Elephant a new way forward. Instead of telling ourselves not to do something, we need to have an alternative action ready to go. Telling ourselves not to do something, fixates our mind on doing it. When we attempt to suppress a thought, we make things worse. We begin to fixate on it instead. Psychologists call this Ironic Theory.

A classic example is asking someone not to think of a white bear. They immediately find it difficult to think of anything else. Their mind keeps checking-in to ensure they are not thinking about it, which ironically causes them to fixate on it. Instead of telling yourself not to do something, give yourself something else to focus on, like a new habit. Shaping the Path and having an alternative routine is crucial to interrupting a bad habit. If we are uncertain or cannot perform the new behavior, we will regress to our old familiar one. Ideally, the new Routine will provide some of the same benefits that the old Routine provided.

The secret of change is to focus all of your energy, not on fighting the old, but on building the new.— Socrates

[i] Charles, Duhigg, The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business, Random House Trade Paperbacks (January 7, 2014).

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