Like Bruce Willis, Old Habits Die Hard

If you've not done so, read the previous post - Forming Positive Habits before snacking on this morsel.


We’ve seen that it’s fairly straight forward to create a new positive habit, but changing an existing negative habit is a different kettle of slippery fish.


This has much to do with the way our brain works. New habits are initialised in the thinking part of the brain, the prefrontal cortex - we think about doing the action, then do the action enough times until it happens whenever it’s triggered. This automation happens in the old part of our brains, which is more efficient, hence the trigger fires the action and not our thought process.


This is also why it can be extremely challenging to break a negative habit. Despite our best intentions, no matter how much we think we want to change an outcome, the mammalian reflex overrules the new intention and the compulsive behaviour, whether it’s an action, thought or feeling, remains.


This can be  frustrating, and these compulsive behaviours, in extreme cases, can make our live’s a misery, despite the deep desire to banish them.


Knowing both the trigger and the reward is key to changing a habit.




Watch yourself closely and find what triggers the habit. It could be a time, event, emotion, a person or a place that sets it off. Do you:


Eat when bored?

Smoke when others do?

Shop when stressed? 

Drink when lonely?


Maybe you go to the climbing wall with the intention of a full session and always end up socialising instead.

Or not warming up.

Or you get sucked into off-plan problems that others are trying.

Or you have coffee instead of water mid session.


Become adept at observing yourself and note the triggers. Ask your closest friends for their observations too - you might learn things that you are unwilling to recognise yourself.


Results or rewards


Our habits, whether positive or negative, meet some kind of need. They might be a way to cope with stress, boredom, sadness, loneliness, or they could be way holding power or superiority over others. They might help you socialise or be a treat that you give yourself.


For each trigger that you have recognised, it is essential that you also find the result or reward. This might not always be obvious to you.


Replace the habit


When the inevitable trigger gets pulled, you can’t just ignore the old habit as it will leave a specific need unfulfilled. You need an alternative habit to fill that void. One for each of your triggers. Go for a walk, do 10 pull ups, have a glass of water, the list is endless but make it positive.


Now when the trigger is pulled do the new habit. Do it enough times and it will become automatic, and the old one will be banished. However you will need to notice when the trigger goes, and be aware that it might happen when you least expect it - be observant and watch your thoughts as we justify our old habits by making excuses for them. Be strong, especially when you feel like giving up, which will inevitably happen from time to time.


Some Examples


1. Being a popular guy, I aways get drawn into chatting at the wall or joining in with others sessions. This made it quite tough to follow my own plan. The trigger was just coming into the gym and seeing other climbers I know, and the reward was the banter and laughter and camaraderie. Even though there was music playing constantly, I started to put headphones on which created a mental barrier with everyone else and put me in the training mood. Unsurprisingly others tend not to approach you when you have headphones on and look psyched either. When I finished my session I could chat with all my friends. 


2. Road rage is so common to not be unusual. Once upon a time, if someone cut me, I would get pretty pissed off and do the usual shouting, light flashing and driving up their arse antics. It did my state of mind no good whatsoever. The trigger was their action and the reward was my condemnation and feeling of being wronged. I learned to let it go by imagining them in a mad rush to get home to a sad and meaningless life, and I then felt sorry for them rather than angry. These days I know that cutting people up is their bad habit, hopefully they’ll recognise that too.


Messing up


We all mess up from time to time. Recognise it, accept it, and learn from it - don’t let it derail your momentum.


Be accountable


Tell your closest friends what you are doing and let them support you. They can also avoid situations with you that fire your triggers if they are aware of them and your desire for positive change.



If your friends are the trigger then that’s another story altogether…


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