Breaking bad habits

Breaking bad habits

This will be my last blog post this year, and I realise that I’ve very quickly got into the routine of writing them every week, and found the Wednesday morning deadline to be a useful discipline for me.  That said not every habit that people develop is as welcome or as helpful, and in a couple of weeks’ time we’ll see the seasonal slew of articles on New Year’s resolutions.

Every year we seem to the same familiar advice (“make your resolutions achievable”, “make your resolutions specific”) and the same well worn, and sometimes contradictory, platitudes (“if you will it sufficiently you can make it happen”, “you have the ability to be anything you want to be”).  Instead of repeating the same old advice, which either has worked for you previously or more probably hasn’t if you’ve read this far, I thought that I would share a technique, and a piece of research that will help you to make the most of any resolutions and in breaking bad habits.


The technique is remarkably simple – instead of saying “I can’t eat cake/miss a gym session/etc” say “I don’t eat cake/miss gym sessions/etc” – but the effect can be profound.  This is because when you’re told that you can’t do something your natural response is to try and work out how you can.  As a result the subject of the self-denial, instead of being forgotten, only looms larger in your mind as you think of how you might be able to justify eating a small piece of cake or not going back out on a cold night.  As you subconsciously realise that the rule that says you “can’t” is entirely in your control, it becomes even easier to justify – perhaps by eating less tomorrow, or going to the gym on the way home and doing more.  The problem of course is that this so rarely happens, and people quickly become disillusioned and break their resolutions – no matter how specific or achievable- rather than them breaking bad habits.


If you substitute “don’t” for “can’t” however your whole frame of reference changes.  Instead of being subject to a rule you actually already talk about yourself in terms of success.  Saying “I don’t miss gym sessions” makes you describe yourself as someone who already has that mind-set and expects to succeed.  As a result, rather than being under some imposed restriction, your inner-dialogue involves you being in charge and free to make choices – a frame of mind that actively supports you in what you want to achieve.


The piece of research is around denial being a finite mental resource – if you have to apply it disproportionately to one area then your self-denial in other areas will suffer.  For instance if you spend all your time successfully maintaining “I can’t eat cake” then you will be much less able to    maintain “I don’t miss gym sessions” at the end of the day – or resist rewarding yourself with some chocolate for having done so well to not eat any cake.  Framing your thoughts as “I don’t” doesn’t involve the same level of conscious or subconscious self-denial, and it gives you the ability to practice as and when you need to.


In short then


  • Telling yourself “I can’t” means telling yourself that you still do whenever you can
  • Telling yourself “I can’t” means having to practice self-denial if you’re not going to bend your own rules
  • If you’re focussing your self-denial in one area then you’ll be slipping in others
  • Telling yourself “I don’t” means putting yourself in a much more positive position


I’m not expecting anyone to start their healthier resolutions before or during Christmas but do let me know how you get on in breaking bad habits – especially with the things you don’t do as opposed to the things that you can’t do.  And if you would like to discuss or know any more about help with stopping or losing bad habits,  please feel free to contact me for a no-obligation chat.