How to Break a Bad Habit? Easy, cheat.

Mark ReaganPersonal Development2 Comments

Bridge over hills

Change… can be hard.

There, I said it.

There are times when it can actually be pretty easy, but often it’s not. When we want to change a behavior, a self-limiting belief, or even learn a new skill, it can be daunting.

When we want to make a change in our lives, we often see everything we don’t like. We see that we’re going to have to change our schedule, change our diet, cut back on activities (or stop giving into temptations) that we enjoy, stop seeing certain people, start using different, more empowering language, take actions that may feel awkward for awhile, and suddenly we’re overwhelmed.

Each item we add on in our minds is one more thing we have to do. Instead of seeing a small gap we can – and want – to jump over, we’ve created a chasm that’s insurmountable.


Small gaps can actually urge us forward.


They come in many forms, like when:

We’re reading a good story, and we get to the end of the chapter. Part of us might want to put it down, but the rest of us is thinking, “What happens next?” and we keep reading.

Same thing with TV shows. I’ve been watching the Daredevil show that was recently released on Netflix, and it has some great cliffhangers – like when (minor spoiler) an episode ends with someone close to the blind superhero discovering his secret identity.

A gap is a lack of information which makes us want to know the answer to the “What happens next?” A small gap and we want to take that next step and jump across. But if the gap becomes too big – and we have too little information – we stand on the edge of the Grand Canyon, look at it, think about jumping over it, and we respond with the answer of, “Fuck. That.

That list earlier of stuff we’re going to have to change? That feels insurmountable? It might not seem like it, but there’s a lot of information missing, and a lot of questions that are probably going unanswered.

Questions like…

“How am I going to do all this?”

“Where’s the time going to come from?”

“Where am I going to get the energy to do all of it?”

“What if I can’t stick with it?”

“What are people going to think of me if I do this?”

“Where do I even start?”

“What’s going to change for me if I accomplish this?”

“Do I even actually want to do this?”

We can come up with more questions, and some of them may come from our self-limiting beliefs (see my freebie by signing up for my newsletter for more info on those).

Chip and Dan Heath in their book Switch talk about this, saying that what might appear to be outward resistance or laziness is really a lack of clarity.

This is why programs and systems to achieve something are so popular: while you still have to put in the work, they shrink the gap by giving you nearly all the information you need with step by step plans to put it into action.

But for this post, we’re not going to worry about looking for all that information to shrink the gap. Instead…


We’re going to cheat.


Gasp. I know. Some of you don’t like cheating. But this is one of the good times to cheat, unlike cheating at card or board games (you know who you are!)

Say, instead of jumping over the canyon, you can walk over it. Maybe you can see there’s a bridge connecting the two sides. Or maybe you have super powers and can walk in thin air.

When we have the whole canyon in front of us, it’s daunting. Might seem impossible.


But what if we started halfway?


Imagine yourself in the middle of the canyon.

Looking back at how far you’ve already come, do you feel like just quitting and heading back, or continuing forward? After all, it’s the same distance. If you’re already halfway, it’s just as easy to keep going forward instead of turning around.

For how this works, let’s look at study involving a car wash and their punch cards.

Researchers Joseph Nunes and Xavier Dréz conducted a study that went like this:

One set of customers were given a punch card. If they purchased eight washes, they would get one free.

A second set of customers were also given a punch card. This card needed ten punches for them to get a free wash, but they were given a head start – they were given two free punches.

Both sets of customers needed eight washes to get one free.

With that in mind, which set do you think earned their free wash more often?


That’s right, it was the group who had a 10-punch card, but were given the two punch head start.


So how about we be kind to ourselves and give ourselves that same head start?

If you wanted, you could literally make yourself a punch card with an appropriate reward at the end, and have your life partner, friends, or kids give you punches when you complete a task toward the goal or the change you want (I have no idea if that would work, but it might be worth trying!).

Instead of giving ourselves a punch card, we’re going to shift our perspective and zoom out.

In coaching, we usually call a purposeful shift in perspective a “reframe.” So when we want to make a change in our lives, let’s reframe it to give us that boost at the start.

Recently, I asked a friend of mine, “What are three things you like about me, and what are three things you don’t?”

(If asking that question sounds a little scary – it is. It takes courage to find out what someone you trust honestly doesn’t like about you.)

My friend didn’t tell me anything awful. Instead, what he said was, “You already tend to talk really fast. And when you get excited, you talk even faster. I can’t keep up and get lost.”

I had been told that I talked fast before… but it was when I was a kid from my mom. So did I listen to her? NOPE.

Now, years later, being a much more sensible person (I’d like to think), I listened.

My friend didn’t just tell me I talked fast, he told me the effect my fast talking was having – I was losing people’s attention. If that happens with someone I’m friends with, no big deal.

But if it happens with someone I’m meeting for the first time that I want to make a good impression on? Or working with a client?

If I talk too fast, I can blow someone out of the water without even thinking about it. I create a negative experience for them. Then naturally, I would feel something off in the conversation but have no idea why.


I’d felt it numerous times.


MORE SO, if I speak too fast, it’s like my mouth gets ahead of my thoughts. It’s like I have a traffic jam in my brain, and the result is I start stuttering.

As soon as I heard him say it, I realized I had a bad habit, and I wanted to change it. But how to break a bad habit like this? I already knew how – practice talking slower, and if I’m talking one-on-one, matching the other person’s rate of speech when possible (they can understand themselves very well, so might as well match their pace).

Two pieces of information are key, even for our mental trick we’re going to pull.

  1. We have to want to change.
  2. We have to know the first step.

For me, talking fast is a very ingrained habit. I’ve been doing it all my life. I’ve got decades of practice. So how to give myself the punch card head start?

If I look at it like, “I’m starting to learn to speak slowly from scratch.”

Then I have a long way to go. That’s like looking down a long, hard road that I don’t want to travel down.


Instead I looked at it like this:


“I’ve already mastered learning how to speak fast. Now I’m going to learn the other half.


I didn’t look at the skill I was learning as “speaking slowly,” I generalized it. I looked at the skill I was learning as “speaking.”

Look at these two diagrams. If you were filling them in, which would be easier? The one that’s empty, or the one that’s filled in half way?

Life Coaching Bad Habit Circles



When a client I’m working with feels intimidated by the amount of change they have ahead of themselves, I bring out this reframe.

I had one client who was conflict avoidant their whole life and no longer wanted to be. So I said, “You’ve gotten a lot of practice at avoiding tough conversations with other people. You’re already a master at that half of the equation. Now it’s time to learn this half.”

I’ve used the same reframe with anxiety, stress, and more.

(This reframe not only gives us a head start bonus, it frames the old behavior as something that’s learned… because it is. If the old, unwanted behavior is learned, that implies we can learn the new one as well).

So think about a change you want to make in your life, or a skill you want to learn, maybe something you’ve been putting off.

Maybe you can imagine this: You’ve already mastered the behavior you want to change. You’re so good, you’re an expert at it. But it’s really half of a larger behavior. You’re already halfway across the bridge.


When you look at a situation like this, what changes for you?


Let me know in the comments.


Photo courtesy of John Lloyd

2 Comments on “How to Break a Bad Habit? Easy, cheat.”

  1. Great post Mark! I love your analogies. I can totally empathise with the talking too fast concept too, what a great reframe, I’m going to pinch it

    If we always do what we’ve always done, we’ll always get what we’ve always got! Getting feedback from people we know about our positive and negative behaviours, from their perspective, is so powerful. During my coaching diploma we stood in line and took feedback, face-to-face. Very powerful whilst extremely unnerving at the same time. I’d rather have my awareness raised than live as if I have nothing to learn.

    Thank you for your writing skills, you have a great deal to share with the world.

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