Just thinking of changing habits often invokes feelings of frustration and hopelessness. So many times we’ve tried to start new habits or end old ones and have ended up feeling unsuccessful and discouraged. No doubt about it — changing habits is hard, but there are a few myths which make it more difficult than necessary.

Myth 1: “This is the way I am”

This is a good way to fail before getting out of the starting gate. If you believe that you can’t change, you probably won’t. If you believe you can change, you might. “I just have such a sweet tooth.” “I’m just not a morning person.” “I just always run ten minutes late.” “I just react when I get angry.” The solution to this cognitive distortion is to delete “I just” and replace it with “I choose to” in each sentence. Acknowledging that choice is involved opens the door for the possibility of change.

Myth #2: “It takes X days to change a habit”

If it sounds too simple to be true, it probably is. There is no magical time frame to create or break a habit. Changing a habit requires repetition — an enormous amount of repetition — over a significant period of time. Failure to appreciate this misrepresents the depth of the challenge. Staying away from chocolate and holding your breath for the seven or 21 days to pass will not do the trick. There is no magical number of days after which the new habit is forever locked in place or the bad one completely gone. The change will become stronger with more time and repetition, but it might require additional attention and effort for a very long time.

Myth 3: “You just have to put your mind to it, that’s all”

True, it’s important to be seriously committed to your decision, your new way of living. Using this kind of will power and determination is indeed necessary, but not quite sufficient. In addition to the commitment, it’s important to have a clear plan as to how you’re going to make the change. What will you eat instead of chocolate when you’re hungry for a snack? What will you do instead of yelling when you’re angry and fed up? What change do you need to make in your evening routine so that you can get to bed earlier so that you can get up earlier so that you can not run 10 minutes late?

Myth 4: “You can’t teach an old dog new tricks”

It might be true that you can’t teach a rigid dog new tricks, but old dogs can do just fine if they embrace a flexibility and openness in thinking. There are some who are more rigid in their thinking at 24 than others at 74. Faith in the possibility of change, courage to experiment with new ideas and behaviors, willingness to be persistent, focused and resilient do not have to fade with age.

Habits of the heart

We typically think of habits as observable behaviors that we do or don’t do. But there are also habits of the heart which are amenable to change as well. A softer heart, a forgiving attitude, a compassionate spirit — these are not only qualities that some may be born with, but are habits that any of us can learn to cultivate if we choose.

Art Frenz, Ph.D.

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