I invite you to think of a habit you’d like to transform—either an old one you’d like to let go of or a new one you’d like to cultivate. A habit is any behavior we engage in semi-unconsciously, one that feels like it arises almost automatically or effortlessly within us.

For example, you might want to stretch your body after you wake up in the morning, breathe deeply when your child says something that activates you rather than screaming, close the computer at 5pm, or turn off the lights at an hour that supports you to wake up and stretch in the morning.

Over the years, many of my clients have wanted to develop a writing habit. They schedule time to write, sit down to do it, but sooner or later, they feel overwhelmed by the enormity of the task and get pulled into distraction. They go down an internet rabbit hole, get lost in social media, or succumb to an urge to do something more straightforward like the laundry.

Whatever it is, most of us have something that we want to do but then repeatedly feel pulled to do anything else instead. For me, it’s exercise, as I find just about anything else more interesting.

Now, a question for you—

What do you think you need to do in order to change your habits?

Many people answer this question with the word discipline, which originally meant punishment for the sake of correction.

But, as you may have experienced, discipline doesn’t always work that well for changing habits, and a self-punishing approach can perpetuate other unhelpful habits like self-judgment and self-harm.

Today, I want to share with you a far more kind and effective approach:

Self-observation.

In the last episode, I shared how our habitual behaviors arise when our nervous systems detect a cue in our environments that prompts an activation cascade—a sequence of sensations, emotions, thoughts, and ultimately, behaviors. And, I explained how, when we pause, we interrupt the activation cascade and create an opportunity to choose a different response.

Unfortunately, we’re often unaware that we’re experiencing an activation cascade in the first place. And, without awareness, it’s almost impossible to pause and choose a different response..

Fortunately, when we practice paying attention to what happens when we’re activated, it becomes far easier to notice when we’re activated, pause, and choose a different response. That’s where self-observation comes in.

In The Power of Habit, Nathan Azrin, one of the developers of habit reversal training, states:

“It seems ridiculously simple, but once you’re aware of how your habit works, once you recognize the cues and rewards, you’re halfway to changing it.

It seems like it should be more complex. The truth is, the brain can be reprogrammed. You just have to be deliberate about it.”[1]

In other words, the more awareness, the more choice. The more awareness of our behaviors we cultivate, the easier it becomes to choose behaviors that serve us and the people we care about.

In my Presence-Based Coaching training years ago, I learned a self-observation practice that I’ve come to rely on to help my clients (and myself) choose new behaviors and cultivate new habits. Here’s the practice:

Choose a behavior that you’d like to change and are willing to spend a few minutes investigating each day. Then, dedicate a few minutes each day to reflecting on instances during that day when you engaged or didn’t engage in the behavior.

If it is a behavior you want to let go of, ask yourself these specific questions, which track each part of the activation cascade:

  1. Did I feel a pull to engage in the behavior? If so, when?
  2. What sensations and emotions did I feel in my body?
  3. What thoughts did I think?
  4. What did I do?
  5. What happened as a result?

If you’re tracking a behavior you want to do more of, ask yourself: When did I have an opportunity to engage in this behavior today? And, what did I do then?

If you engaged in the behavior, celebrate yourself! If you didn’t, ask yourself the questions above: What sensations and emotions did you feel? What thoughts did you think? What did you do? What happened as a result?

Here’s an example of what the practice might look like: Let’s say you want to turn off screens at 10pm and go to bed but you often find yourself up way later than that. So you commit to a practice of taking a moment before you go to bed to write down what you did that night around 10pm. For the first couple of nights, you observe that you turn off screens before 10pm, you jot down what helped you do that, and you celebrate.

Then, one night, at 9:50, your phone buzzes with a text from a colleague. One thing leads to another, and an hour later, you’re still staring at your phone.

And so, before you go to bed (or as soon as you remember the next day), you reflect on what happened within you. You recognize how, when your phone buzzed, you felt an urge in your arms to immediately reach it, you felt a nervousness in your chest, and you worried whether your colleague was texting to share more negative feedback.

You reflect on how, as a result of reaching for your phone, you were too tired this morning to do your new stretching practice and you began the day by rushing and feeling down about yourself. You decide to put your phone on airplane mode starting at 9pm each night so that you aren’t tempted to respond to texts.

You continue your self-observation practice for a few more weeks, discover other ways to make it easier to get into bed on time, and over time, you notice that you start feeling pulled to go to bed earlier.

Each time we practice self-observation, we strengthen our ability to notice when we’re activated. When we notice that we’re activated, we are more able to pause and choose a new response. And, each time we pause and choose a new response, we strengthen the neurological patterns associated with our new behavior.

With enough repetition over time, our new behaviors become habitual. We feel less and less pulled to engage in our old behavior and more pulled to engage in the new one.

Here’s a simplified stage-by-stage depiction of how habits change over time:

  • Stage One: You don’t even realize that you’re engaging in your habitual behavior.
  • Stage Two: You realize that you engaged in the behavior, long after the fact.
  • Stage Three: You notice the behavior sooner, but still in hindsight.
  • Stage Four: You begin to catch yourself in the act. You become aware of the urges and pulls to engage in your habit in the moment, but your habit is still strong, and you follow the pull. This time, though, you have more awareness of what you’re doing while you’re doing it.
  • Stage Five: You begin to notice your habitual impulse before you engage in the behavior, but you follow the impulse anyway.
  • Stage Six: You still feel an urge to react, but you consciously choose to interrupt it and do something different in the heat of the moment. At this stage, choosing something different requires commitment and often feels quite uncomfortable.
  • Stage Seven: Your new response becomes so habitual that you no longer have to pay conscious attention. It’s as if your new behavior arises almost automatically.

If there’s a behavior you’d like to transform, I encourage you to consider creating a self-observation practice now.

Self-Observation Practice

  1. Choose an existing behavior that you’d like to transform.
  2. Decide when you’ll practice each day and how many weeks you’ll commit to. Unlike a lot of other practices I teach like pausing, offering yourself warmth and kindness, and tuning in to what you feel and need, this practice isn’t meant to be engaged in for the rest of your life, only when you need it.That said, this practice is most potent when we engage in it for a few minutes once a day over the course of a few weeks. The number of weeks each of us needs is different, but I recommend giving it at least two to three weeks. And, of course, if you forget for a day, that’s okay. Just return to the practice the next day.It can be easier to remember to practice when we choose one time and place we’ll practice every day and anchor it after something we already do like getting out our lunch, closing the computer, or sitting down in bed.
  3. When it’s time to practice, do your best to approach yourself with warmth and genuine curiosity. Noticing that we’ve engaged in a habitual behavior is like waking up. If you realize you’ve been sleeping, please don’t beat yourself. Instead, get curious about what’s happening.
  4. Get out your journal and jot down your answers to the following questions:
    a)  Did I feel pulled to engage in the behavior today?
    b)  If so, what happened to activate this pull in me?
    c)  What sensations did I feel in my body?
    d)  What emotions did I feel?
    e)  What did I think?
    f)  What did I do?
    g)  What happened as a result?

    Although you may ask yourself other questions in addition to these, I encourage you to ask these specific questions as they will help you to investigate precisely how the activation cascade arises within you.

  5. After a week or so, look back through your notes and ask yourself:
  1. Do I notice any patterns related to how I get activated and how I behave?
  2. What sense do I make of what I notice?
  3. Are my habits shifting in any way? If so, how?
  4. What might support me more to change?
  5. Are there cues that particularly activate me? Is there a way that I might limit these cues? For example, you might turn off notifications on your phone, limit how much time you spend looking at social media, choose specific times to read email, keep your phone on silent, schedule interruption-free times in your days, use an internet blocker such as Freedom or Self Control, or declutter your workspace.

Or you might choose this variation: Keep an index card with you throughout the day and jot down each time you notice a behavior you’ve chosen to observe, like making a check mark each time you look at social media or writing down what time you go to bed. For example, a client who struggled to finish her dissertation made a note of the exact time she sat down to write each day and the time when she stopped writing. This practice was key to her earning her PhD several months later.


[1] Charles Duhigg, The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business. (New York: Random House, 2014.)

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