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7 – Attitudes to Habit

So much of lasting change that we can embed in our lives comes through establishing habits, our attitude to habits is crucial to our long-term success.  We can go out and do a big push to make something happen but the change you can create by doing 1% better every day for 90 days is almost 2.5 times.  Habits are the key, once you’ve established a habit it’s a foundation on which you can build.  

What is your attitude to habits? 

In my view, the most successful attitude to habits, is to continually build more habits into your life that build your success, and end habits that undermine your success.   

The whole of the dieting industry has relied upon the fact that people are unable to build habits successfully.  The way that they continue to reinforce this inability to build habits successfully, is to promise people miracles through short commitments that will create lasting change.  The sad truth is that for most people the latest fad diet just reinforces the yo-yo of short-term weight loss and long-term weight gain.  

How can you successfully build new habits? 

You have to take a medium-term view.  Any significant, persistent change can only happen if you give yourself an extended period to put it into place.  In my experience, the most powerful way to reinforce habits, is to 

  • set realistic goals for establishing those habits 
  • build them slowly over time
  • create a very immediate positive feedback mechanism 
  • continually review benefit of the good habit or the impact of the bad habit.

Breaking a bad habit

Let’s say that you want to cut down on your smoking.  It is hopeless, for most people, to cut down on their smoking, by making an unrealistic goal that in one day you will change from 40 a day to zero.

A realistic first step could be to reduce the number of packs per week from 14 to 12.

Once you have succeeded in reducing your smoking to 12 packs a week over three weeks reduce it to 10 packs per week for three weeks and so on.  After less than six months, you can contemplate the option of limiting yourself to one cigarette a day.

A powerful immediate positive feedback mechanism is to set aside the £9.50 – £14.00 (Tesco prices Jan-22) per pack you have saved, into a reward fund.  £20 per week for a month could be a special meal for two.  If you reduce your spend to one packet a fortnight you are saving £135 a week, more than £7k per year (a winter holiday for two in a luxury tropical resort!). But the second thing is to have a level of realism about how you’re going to move to that goal.  

When you start out you can buy those 12 packets at the beginning of the week and then make them last to the end of the week. It’s not about what happens on any one day, but you’ve built a habit of reducing your smoking.  Once you feel confident at 12 packets a week take the next step and go from 12 to 10.  You’re building more and more confidence in your ability to achieve your goals.  You are increasing the reward with the money that you save.  You’re managing an addiction to a bad habit in a sensible way.

Experts on addictions say that nicotine is more addictive than heroin and harder to kick than heroin.  Although bad habits create problems for you in the long-term, they serve you in the short-term.  You need to substitute a short term reward in order to break them.

Starting a good habit

Let’s imagine you’re somebody who is pretty much a couch potato.  You spend almost all your time either lying down or sitting down.  The most walking you do is to and from the car, or to and from different rooms in your house.  Your immediate goal is to achieve the NHS recommendation of 150 minutes of moderate intensity activity a week spread evenly over 5 days a week (30 minutes brisk walk per session).  The simplest way of building a new habit is to use ‘habit stacking’.  You take an existing habit and build an extra habit on it.

Let’s say your morning routine is you get up out of bed, have a coffee, have a shower, get ready for the day, start work.  Where in that sequence could you stack an extra habit? Maybe the place to do it is between that coffee, and the shower.  Having laid out your walking gear the night before (the power of pre-decision), the first thing you do when you get out of bed is to get dressed in your gear.  Make your cup of coffee but put it in a flask.  Take your brisk walk while sipping your coffee.  Now you’re back, complete rest of your routine.

Set easily achievable initial goals: in the first week success is two mornings out of seven.  Then reward yourself.  What is the reward going to be?  Put up a chart, It’s amazing how children’s behaviours at school change when there’s a star chart on the fridge.  Share your star chart with members of your family.  They may laugh at you at first. As your stars start to build up, you will start to show that you can do two mornings, consistently week in, week out.  You can put an extra star on when you do three. You’re slowly building up a new habit.


With these tools you can build the habit of breaking bad habits and starting new habits.

Your attitude to habits can change from ‘habits are hard’ to ‘habits – I can make them work for me’.

With this Attitude to Habits you are developing your Attitudes for Success.


Charles McLachlan is the founder of FuturePerfect and on a mission to transform the future of work and business. The Portfolio Executive programme is a new initiative to help executives build a sustainable and impactful second-half-career. Creating an alternative future takes imagination, design, organisation and many other thinking skills. Charles is happy to lend them to you.