How to Break an Old Habit and Build a New One

The following was originally published January 22, 2001

 By Sondra Whitt 

When we develop a habit or routine, we’re creating a neurological pathway in our brains. Each time we repeat the routine the same way, we strengthen the pathway, or connections between the neurons. This is what creates a habit. The more repetitions, the stronger the connection.

So how do we break an old habit and create a new one? We have to throw a “road block” in the neurological pathway by breaking the routine. When we break the routine, we stimulate the brain to create a new pathway instead of just strengthening the old one.

Think of some routine activity you go through each day and break it down into the individual steps you take to complete it. Take brushing your teeth, for example. When I brush my teeth, I pick up the toothbrush in my right hand, transfer it to my left, pick up the toothpaste tube with my right hand, open the cap with my left, squeeze the toothpaste onto the toothbrush, close the cap, put the toothpaste away, wet the toothbrush, and then brush my teeth. I have a usual order and routine for the actual brushing, too.

To create a new pathway I must change the routine.  Instead of brushing my teeth holding the toothbrush in my right hand, I could hold the brush with my left. Or I could brush my teeth in a different order. It will feel strange and awkward to change the routine but if I do, it will actually stimulate the brain to create a new pathway.

We can apply this to any pattern of behavior. For example, let’s say Jane suffers from depression and we want to help her. We’ll have her make a list of all the things she does when she is depressed. Jane stays in her sweats all day, eats junk food, watches TV, doesn’t shower, has several beers in the evening, wears a long face, and isolates herself from other people. This is what’s ingrained in Jane’s current pathway – it’s her routine.

Now we’ll have Jane make another list – things Jane can do differently to break the routine. Think of it as a map for her new neurological pathway – take a shower and clean up, take a walk, turn off the TV and talk to someone. Jane can change her feelings of depression by changing her routine way of acting.

If Jane falls into the habit of repeating behaviors that reflect her feelings of depression, she is more likely to feel depressed. If, on the other hand, she chooses to act as though she isn’t depressed, her feelings will fall in line with her actions. She has to throw a road block into the path of her old neurological pathway. To do that she has to “map” out the new pathway and act on it with the same regularity it took to create the old one.          

We’re all creatures of habit. As Aristotle said, “We are what we repeatedly do.” The question then is what do we have to do to become who we want to be?

If you’re interested in Jim Whitt’s consulting or having him speak at a meeting please call 918-494-0009 or email jim@

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