How to Break Bad Habits
When taking the first step toward a new habit, a key question from the Strategy of Distinctions is “Do I prefer to take small steps or big steps?”
Many people succeed best when they keep their starting steps as small and manageable as possible; by doing so, they gain the habit of the habit, and the feeling of mastery. They begin their new yoga routine by doing three poses, or start work on a big writing project by drafting a single sentence in a writing session. As an exercise zealot, I was pleased when my mother told me that she was trying to make a habit of going for a daily walk. “But I’m having trouble sticking to it,” she told me. “How far are you going?” “Twice around Loose Park,” she told me, “which is about two miles”. “Try going just once around the park,” I suggested. That worked. When she started smaller, she was able to form the habit.
Small steps can be particularly helpful when we’re trying to do something that seems overwhelming.
Small steps can be particularly helpful when we’re trying to do something that seems overwhelming. If I can get myself to take that first small step, I usually find that I can keep going. I invoked this principle when I was prodding myself to master Scrivener, a writers’ software program. Scrivener would help me organize my enormous trove of notes, but I dreaded starting: installing the software; synchronizing between my laptop and desktop computers; and most difficult, figuring out how to use it.
Each day gave me a new opportunity to push the task off until tomorrow. Tomorrow, I’d feel like dealing with it. “Start now,” I finally thought. “Just take the first step”. I started with the smallest possible step, which was to find the website where I could buy the software. Okay, I thought. I can do that. And then I did. I had a lot of hard work ahead of me—it’s a Secret of Adulthood: things often get harder before they get easier—but I’d started. The next day, with a feeling of much greater confidence and calm, I watched the tutorial video. Then I created my document. And then - I started my book.
However, some people do better when they push themselves more boldly; a big challenge holds their interest and helps them persist. A friend was determined to learn French, so he moved to France for six months. Along those lines, the Blast Start can be a helpful way to take a first step.
The Blast Start is the opposite of taking the smallest possible first step because it requires a period of high commitment. It’s demanding, but its intensity can energize a habit. For instance, after reading Chris Baty’s book No Plot? No Problem!—which explains how to write a novel in a month—I wrote a novel in thirty days, as a way to spark my creativity. This kind of shock treatment can’t be maintained forever, but it’s fun and gives momentum to the habit.
A Blast Start is, by definition, unsustainable over the long term.
A twenty-oneday project, a detox, a cleanse, an ambitious goal, a boot camp - by tackling more instead of less for a certain period, I get a surge of energy and focus. (Not to mention bragging rights). In particular, I love the retreat model. Three times, I’ve set aside a few days to work on a book during every waking hour, with breaks only for meals and for exercise. These periods of intensity help fuel my daily writing habit. However, a Blast Start is, by definition, unsustainable over the long term. It’s very important to plan specifically how to shift from the intensity of the Blast Start into the habit that will continue indefinitely.
There’s no right way or wrong way, just whatever works.