How to change Habits: Take Baby Steps or Go the Whole Hog

Change Habits: Go the Whole Hog“We form habits and then they form us”

Rob Gilbert

….for good and bad.  You could argue we are our habits.  To change we must change our habits; something I am pretty sure we have all tried and failed at numerous times.  I sure have.

I have read compelling books on the topic of habit changes over the years … excited at first … only to notice no real difference.  Once I lost a book on bus called “Following Through; a revolutionary new guide to finishing what you start”.  Yes I know – hilarious.

Needless to say I never really nailed, getting fit, moderating alcohol, controlling my temper or …or …or …. well at least not until I got really really sick.

So I’ve built my own approach – I call it “Take baby steps or go the Whole Hog”.  I do have some experience to support this.

Learnings from Executive Coaching

In 15 years as an Executive Coach, I have had the deep privilege of hearing peoples stories and challenges.  I have witnessed both their wins and loses on their journeys to a better them.

In my early days in coaching, I would tend to push coachees goals slightly higher than their first sense.  For someone who planned to phone five new clients before we met again, I would say “what about six?”.   Coaching is a learn on the job sort of affair.  Something I learned on the job was – it was more effective to do the complete opposite.  Now if a client suggests getting to the gym three times next week. I say “what about two?”

Change Habits with Baby Steps

Why would I do something so counter-intuitive?  Well …. it seems baby steps are sometimes easier to take. Successful people have taken on huge things; they have advanced degrees, they work huge hours, they lead huge teams.  So why not five trips to the gym, they could just about do it in their sleep – surely?

Things in our lives fall into those we just get into and those we know we should but we just don’t.  What separates these things isn’t always clear and differs person-to-person and isn’t as simple as what we value.  I value health and don’t always act that way.  Others who value family may be guilty of 14 hour days.  Often it is external pressure or fears that drive those things we don’t need so much motivation for … or a bit of the old punishment/reward stuff.  If we don’t do those huge hours we might fail or not get the bonus or let down the boss or the team or mum or dad.  If we do …. well I smell the bonus, promotion etc already.

It might be more simple, some things are just more enjoyable than others.  I certainly prefer researching and writing to chanting ooooom while thinking about my breathing and trying to ignore the agony in my oh-so-erect back.

For whatever reason there are somethings we genuinely value that we just fail at day-after-day. In my coaching experience I notice these things are so often health behaviors.

So why would I encourage my clients to do less? Because, I discovered along the way that in lives already packed full of stuff, smaller easier more gentle changes are easier to make.

Paradoxical there is also an entirely different way……

What about the whole hog?

Currently I am having 10 completely alcohol free days.  How am I doing – 4 days in?  Easy.  How confident am I will succeed?  100%. Am I amazing? No, I am taking antibiotics that react very badly to alcohol and don’t wish to be hospitalized this week.

Which brings me to another quite different approach to baby steps.  Go the whole hog, go on a diet, quit sugar, give up wine, hit the gym, be nice to everyone.  Redefine your normal. I am not actually kidding …. but there is a catch.  You need something external keeping you on the straight and narrow.  Residential rehab exists for a reason; as do boot camps. Similar to why I will not so much as sniff a glass of wine.

One of the times you see transformation in individuals health habits is after shocking health scares or diagnoses.  For such huge events people don’t need to battle their will in the same way. It is one thing to exercise today to stop you getting cancer or heart disease in 10, 20, 30 years time; it is quite another to have heart disease now and exercise today to not die this month.

Not all of you are as lucky as me with my 15 odd illnesses that have put rocks under my health behaviors, after decades of failure at them.

So what are you to do? Well lets look at why sudden health shocks might work …. It brings the thing near and present, puts the pressure right on.  Forces a priority change.   Another way to achieve this is to put the pressure on another way humans respond to – namely pressure from others.

Set up your life so you have people to answer to. Boot camps, support groups, make an agreement with a spouse, friend, child or health professional.   Get a friend to knock on your door for your morning run at 5:50am, it will be harder to roll over and go back to sleep then eh?

This is probably what is behind the success of the dry July phenomena (a alcohol free month, while being sponsored for charity). I personally know a number of people (you know who you are) who do it every year, but if they tried a dry August I would not be betting on their success.  What is it about dry July? The cause, the visibility, the social support, the structure etc.  I’d say all of it.

We keep promises better when they are to others and when we are being watched.  So leverage this knowledge.  We also do better with social support.  Don’t beat yourself up for being human –  get tight accountable systems and people around you.

So my advice to you on those neglected health goals……

Take baby steps or go the whole hog, but what ever you do – don’t just sit on the fence and try the half way approach.

As we approach a shiny new year I know this topic will be on the minds of many. I am interested to hear your plans and goals for the coming year…share them below, I will keep you honest.

Go very slow or super fast in the direction of you dreams.

Yours as Ever,

The Wellbeingatwork(nearly)Dr.


















8 Responsesso far.

  1. Greg says:

    Well I just did three months without a drink- or three dry Julys, just to see if I could, but also to check that I wasn’t becoming dependent on the stuff. Felt very balanced during that time, less of the see-saw emotions and more self assured. Oscar Wilde said the problem with people who don’t drink is that when they wake up in the morning that’s the best they will feel all day. He was being ironic of course. But Saturday morning definitely is easier without the Friday night drinks.

  2. Erica Morrison says:

    I really like your suggestions here, Rachel.
    I agree that baby steps are often way more successful than trying to make big steps–especially on our own. Better to be kind and merciful to ourselves, which seems to bring much more progress little by little than being harsh to ourselves. (I’ve noticed that in my own life, too)
    But when we do need to make a big change, I agree that putting in place lots of accoutability and other structures are really important in order to do so.
    Thanks for the tips!

  3. punkmr says:

    Es conforme, la opiniГіn muy entretenida

  4. Preeti says:

    I like the idea of accountability. Also sharing with someone who has similar health goals/issues helps with spotting patterns and giving encouragement (even if that is “it’s okay that you ate pizza last Friday, it won’t kill you”!). I’m currently sharing my weekly food and symptom diary with a friend who also has IBS.

    • wellbeingatworkdr says:

      Hey Preeti, Thanks for stopping by. That is an awesome idea re diary sharing … we get too close to our own stuff. I suspect a third party might sometimes see what we don’t. I’m going to see if I can find someone here prepared to read mine. Although that might be hard given mine includes daily Heart Rate Variability and all sorts of other mad quantifying stuff, it might put someone to sleep. 🙂

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