Changing habits: A simple plan

I used to smoke a lot.  It was a habit.  It was a serious addiction.  Then I took up running.  That became my new habit.  It wasn’t easy shifting habits.

Zen Habits suggests 3 simple steps (as the core) to change your habit:

  1. Write down your plan.
  2. Identify your triggers and replacement habits.
  3. Focus on doing the replacement habits every single time the triggers happen, for about 30 days.

When I put my own spin and words on those steps, I come up with: 1) have a goal, 2) become aware that you’re moving in the direction (or not!) of your goal, and 3) be regular with your new (habit) practice.

Changing my habit

I started my smoking habit early (almost all my friends at the time smoked too friends matter when it comes to habits), and it wasn’t until I was well into my twenties that running became a habit.  I started jogging while still a smoker.  Eventually, my jogging turned into running, and the smoking was squeezed out.  My running has drifted back to jogging (or walking!).  It’s still a habit though.

Expanding on the 3 simple steps, here’s why I think I was able to transition from smoker to runner.  I consider these lessons learned:

  • I had a goal.  Initially it was to run 1 block.  With the enthusiasm of the novice, that goal quickly ramped up to much bigger goals. Where did the goal(s) come from? I think it came from my early youth, memories before the smoke, of the joy of running.  Part conscious, part unconscious, I was getting back to my roots.
  • I became more self-aware.  It started with the smoke.  As the miles were added, their seemed to be less desire for the smokes.  I was making a connection (it may seem obvious, yet it takes more than thoughts to change… it requires doing, too).  Then there was food.  Gradually I noticed that certain foods were more runner-friendly than others.  And coffee.  I began to notice a link between running distance/quality and coffee consumed.  Both can’t go up! I began to notice sleep.  I needed it.  I began to pay more attention to my heart, and appreciate it as barometer of my physical state.  These things, and more, I gradually clued into, and came to respect…. the feedback loop that was happening.
  • I kept at it.  Long-distance running demands regularity.  Day in, day out.  The trigger to keeping at it connected to my goal and gradual self-awareness.

Bill Isaacs is another kind of Zen master on “dialogue.  The habits of conversation and dialogue can be hard to change.  At times, I talk too much.  I need to listen more.  And so on.  Isaacs says the trick is awareness, not so much trying to stomp out that habit, which doesn’t work anyway. If you start to notice and befriend these tendencies you’ll gradually dissolve and eliminate them.  I agree.


The 3 steps do work.  Of course, you have to apply them to make them work, and which one day I just might do, with my coffee habit!


Have some compassion

Changing your habits can be incredibly difficult and stressful.  Be easy on yourself.  And when you are with others, trying to build consensus, and resistance abounds, remember back to your own habit change experiences… and how hard change was.  Maybe add a pinch more compassion to your next request?


Your story?

What’s your guide? What key strategies have worked best for you… have helped you navigate a major shift in habits?

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Photo credit: Gianni Dominici on Flickr


  1. Smoking has never been something that I’ve picked up, but many of my family members have gone through phases with it. My grandmother used to be a really bad smoker until I was born (the last of the grandkids) and with that, she decided to quit. Her replacement though, was healthy food. And to this day, she always has celery around, because apparently that’s what worked to help her replace it. It’s really something the changes you see in a person, their habits and their personality when they decide to quit.

  2. Nice story DUI.. Thanks for sharing. Its especially tough for elder folks to change ingrained habits, so good for your granny!

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