Watch your thoughts; they become words.
Watch your words; they become actions.
Watch your actions; they become habit.
Watch your habits; they become character.
Watch your character; it becomes your destiny.

—Lao Tzu

When you were born, you were sweet, cuddly, and innocent. You didn’t know how to walk or talk or even hold up your head, and you depended on other people to care for all your needs. You had a lot to learn before you could function on your own.

You soon began learning how to meet your needs. For months, you pushed and pushed and rolled and rocked until one day, you got up onto your hands and knees and used all your strength to start crawling forward. Later, you stood up on your own two feet and learned to balance until eventually, you were waddling around without needing to hold onto anyone’s hand. When you were much older, if you were lucky, you took a risk to get on a bike and pedal around until you were speeding down the road free from training wheels. Each of these steps— crawling, walking, riding a bike— started as a risk but later became so habitual that you could you perform the activity without thinking. Over time, you learned countless other strategies to meet your needs, and the ones you repeated often enough became habits.

What is a habit, anyway?

Habits are unconscious and automatic behaviors that we initially learn to meet a need. They can be actions such as tying our shoes, brushing our teeth, and feeding ourselves, and they can be thought or belief patterns such as those about how to earn approval or succeed in the world.

Habits program extraordinarily complex behaviors into our unconscious physiology so that we can perform them without any conscious thought. For example, if you drive a car, you probably remember how much concentration it took the first time you got behind the wheel. But now, you’re probably able to carry on conversations, listen to music, and plan your week as you navigate through evening traffic, and if you’re like many people, you often arrive home without even remembering the drive there.

In 2006, a Duke University researcher found that over forty percent of the actions people engage in every day are habits rather than conscious decisions. By putting basic behaviors on autopilot, habits allow us to devote mental energy to more complex tasks and take on exciting new challenges. Without them, we’d become mentally paralyzed and have trouble performing even the most basic activities.

Unfortunately, old habits can make it hard to create changes we want and need in our lives.

Every habit you’ve ever learned served you in some way. Otherwise, you wouldn’t have learned it. The problem is, the habits that served you once often don’t serve you anymore, and a habit that works in one situation may actually hinder you in another.

If you’re unaware of your habits or over-rely on certain ones, they can get in the way of doing what you really want. Let’s say you set a big goal for yourself. But soon, a week, a month, or several months go by, and you still haven’t taken action. When you realize this, you have a choice. You can beat yourself up for not doing what you said you’d do. Or, you can use this stuck spot as an opportunity to become aware of old habits that are holding you back and develop new ones to help you move forward. The moments when we feel most stuck are often the juiciest opportunities for learning.

To change your life, you must change your habits.

As a coach, my clients come to me to help them reach a destination. Many coaches, called “performance-based” coaches, help their clients hold themselves accountable so that they’re more likely to reach their goals than they would on their own. That’s great. However, this type of coaching often doesn’t lead to long-term change because, once the support of the coach is gone, clients backslide into old familiar habits that make it difficult for them to keep moving forward alone.

The type of coaching I practice— developmental coaching— helps clients develop habits they can rely on to not only reach their goals now but also continue doing so long into the future.

The first step to changing your habits is to become aware that you have them in the first place.

Because your habits are unconscious, it can be hard to become aware of them without the support of another person who can help you compassionately reveal your blind spots. That said, you can try.

Let’s do a habit brainstorm, shall we?

Right now, I invite you to get a pen and paper and then…

  • Bring to mind something that you’ve wanted to do for a long time but are feeling stuck around. Write it at the top of the paper.
  • Then, ask yourself the following questions:
    • Which old habits might I need to let go of to start moving forward?
    • And, which new habits might I need to develop?
  • Then, set a timer for five minutes, and free-write whatever comes up.
  • When you’re done, take a moment to look at the list you came up with and ask yourself:
    • What’s one small step towards change that I can start taking today?

By focusing on just one habit, you can reprogram many other habits as well. When you commit to taking one step and another step and another, you can change your life.

If you have a friend or two who are feeling stuck and needing a fresh perspective to help them move forward, I invite you to send this article on to them. I’d be grateful. Thank you!!

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