by Jonathan Pishner

As a counselor, I have first hand experience in how difficult it is for people to change their thinking, behaviors, and habits. I am often asked the question, “Why is it so hard to change habits?” The most enduring lesson I ever learned in my years of counseling is that “people don’t change easily.” Even with support, encouragement, and desire, people generally have a difficult time letting go of certain thoughts or behaviors. One of the major barriers to these changes is often what I call the “Habit Stack.”

Many people know of one or two simple changes they could make to have a big impact on their health or life. But when they try to change it, somehow that change only lasts a short time. The reason this change doesn’t stick is this: That one habit is usually supported by two others, or five others, or twenty others. All of our behaviors tend to be interconnected, and in order to change one, we have to change several. This is the habit stack. It is the desire to change one habit, which actually requires a seemingly daunting number of changes to actually take effect.

There is an unfortunate tendency for friends, family, and helping professionals to fail in expressing support when someone runs headlong into a habit stack. This is understandable. From the outside, the solution can look simple. Would-be helpers don’t see the larger set of needed changes, and so the person can look whiny and stubborn. But human beings are creatures of habit. As the number of habits in the habit stack increase, an unsuccessful outcome becomes more likely.

Let’s imagine an example of a simple problem with a complicated habit stack. Our imaginary subject will be called Bob. Bob is severely overweight and in his early thirties. He has been overweight most of his life, and the problem has become so severe that his doctor now tells him that he must lose weight or he will be at risk of death in a few years. His body is too weak for extensive exercise, so his doctor tells him that he must begin by eating healthier foods.

Two words: eat healthy. Very easy to say, but how easy are they when there is a habit stack?

One of the major ways that Bob reduces his stress is to overeat. Now that he must eat healthier, he can’t use eating to help with stress. So now, instead of one habit to change, we have two: eat healthier; and find other ways to deal with stress.

Bob tries to eat healthy, but he believes that this means eating lots of salads, even though he puts heavy dressing all over them and fills them with meat. It turns out that he doesn’t know much about eating healthy, so he will have to learn. He has stopped eating to soothe his emotions, but now he is falling into a depression. Bob will have to learn how to use other ways to positively affect his emotions. Now he has three habits to change: learn about eating healthy; actually eat healthy; find new ways to reduce stress.

Bob begins to get a handle on learning how to prepare healthy food. Now he realizes that it takes much longer than just ordering fast-food, and he doesn’t know how to make the time to cook. He begins to feel rushed and harassed all the time. Bob now has four habits to work on: learn to eat healthy; make time to prepare healthy food; eat healthy; and make time for stress reduction without overeating.

Is it any wonder that people don’t change habits easily? Using this example, we can see why Bob might choose risking his health as opposed to the pain and struggle it would take to break through the habit stack.

So what can a person do to beat the huge stack of habits and get the life they want?

First, be aware of it. If you are aware that a habit stack is likely, it is difficult to be as surprised or feel as defeated when it actually occurs. When a person attempts to change what seems like a simple habit, it is important to be prepared to enact changes in multiple areas of life. When you know to expect the habit stack, you can plan for it. Instead of making a two word plan like “eat healthy”, you can know to plan for multiple small habits that will need to be examined and changed.

Another way to get through the habit stack is to ensure that you have support. Some people will need a little support, while others might need a great deal for even small habits. Support is essential for those times when you keep getting stuck. Find a person or group of people that can be helpful and supportive. Find a book or a blog or seek out a counselor to help get you on the right track. Change is hard enough already, don’t try to do it all alone.

Start small if necessary. When you are aware of the habit stack, you can decide how much you are going to tackle at once. When someone takes on too much all at once, they will often feel that they have to restructure their entire life, and that feeling is very stressful. Even small changes can feel enormous. Because your mind is not used to new behaviors, so they take up a lot of space in your head.

One day at a time. This is a great mindset for changing any habit. If you are trying to keep a positive change and you have a setback, that’s just one day. The next day is new, so instead of giving up, try again. If you succeed for that day, that’s great! Then keep trying the next day.

The final way to get past the habit stack is both the simplest and hardest: keep trying. This is very hard for some people, because there’s not usually a shortcut. We gain bad habits and negative behaviors because they are the path of least resistance. If you want a positive change in your life, you have to keep working. If you want growth, you have to keep at it. When you have a success, keep working. When you fail, keep working.

Eventually, it happens: you reach a certain point, and that new behavior you’ve been trying becomes natural. After many days of taking it one day at a time, your new habit or behavior finally becomes ingrained and you don’t have to think about it anymore. You are doing it without effort.

So be aware that the habit stack exists. Plan for it, and get support to get around it. Take small steps and keep working. But most important of all, don’t get crushed by it. Now that you know what will happen when you try and make a change, you will be much more ready to succeed.


Photo: House of Cards by Peter Roberts / is licensed under CC BY 2.0

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