Old Habits Die Hard

You’ve heard it before: Couch potato turned 10K runner. A pack of Marlboro a day to climbing Mount Kilimanjaro. How do people do it—change? Ever wondered how some people with seemingly little effort, change old habits? Whereas others talk about the same tired troubles for weeks, months or maybe even years but are still stuck in the same insufferable spot?

It could be forgetting to put the toilet seat down, speaking with your mouth full or the inability to stick with a regular exercise program. Everyone has a couple or three maddening inclinations that we call bad habits. Whether it’s merely a foible familiar only to family and friends or a more serious pattern like smoking or over-eating, change is not easy. You only have to peruse the shelves of your local bookstore to recognize that changing patterns is an industry in itself. Besides “self-help” books and videos with the principal goal of helping people achieve the life they desire, there is also an increasing demand for hands-on courses and training programs.

After years as a family counselor and management facilitator, Vancouver’s Larry Birckhead formed HabitShift, a company that provides in-depth training courses on changing habits. After completing SportMedBC’s InTraining program, Birckhead approached us to discuss how he used the principles of HabitShift to achieve his goal of one day running the Vancouver Sun Run. Larry had been running for years, but for some reason he was unable to see himself as a runner who could complete a 10K event. He recognized that in order to achieve his 10k goal he needed to shift the perspective he had of himself as a non athlete.


Social science research suggests that behavior change is often viewed as an event such as quittingsmoking or drinking. In contrast, Birckhead and others support the belief that change as something that is done through a process of small incremental adjustments. Based on this theory, social science researchers J.O. Prochaska and C.C. DiClemente created the Transtheoretical model of change. The model was originally conceptualized for problem behaviours such as alcohol abuse and smoking. Central to the Transtheoretical model is the five stages of change, which describes how people alter a problem behavior or acquire a positive routine. The theory supports the belief that everyone travels through several common stages when they are attempting to change a pattern or behavior.

Stages of Change

Pre-contemplation: At this time there is little or no desire for change. Or, a person may not even recognize that there is a problem.

Contemplation: At this stage people are aware of the problem and they are giving serious consideration to change. In other words, they have started to own responsibility for the habit or pattern.

Preparation: This is the point when individuals are getting ready to take action. They have decided there is a problem and they are taking steps towards concrete action.

Action: During this stage people are altering behavior and environment in order to change their problem. They are taking action.

Maintenance: At this point people are working to avoid slipping back into their old patterns. Significant changes have been made but there is still some longing for the old days or old habits.


When Larry Birckhead made the decision to become a 10k runner and put the stages of change model to the test, he put significant energy into building his self-efficacy. One’s belief in his or her ability to effectively control specific events in his or her life is known as self-efficacy. Birckhead strongly believes that self-efficacy is what separates people who change successfully from those who remain in chronic contemplation mode. Research supports Birckhead’s beliefs and suggests that people with high self-efficacy generally have optimistic beliefs about being able to cope with a large variety of stressors. Whereas people who have low self-efficacy are more prone to depression, anxiety and helplessness. These individuals often have low self-esteem and hold pessimistic thoughts about their accomplishments and personal development.

Cheerleading and encouraging friends and family is great, but improving one’s self-efficacy requires action. Strong self-efficacy or the belief in your ability to overcome problem situations needs more than positive self-talk. Building a common belief in one’s self is a slow and gradual process of experiencing accomplishments. As a result of incorporating incremental changes, people are more likely to experience success, and ultimately achieve their goals. Unfortunately, a common problem in building self-efficacy is taking on too much, too soon. The result is often feelings of failure or worse, reverting back to old habits.

The concept of self-efficacy has a strong correlation to successful change. If we are confident in our ability to change we generally will be successful. For example, studies show that people who think they are the most creative turn out to be the most creative. For most of us, confidence is something that is built over time by way of small, incremental accomplishments. These accomplishments are the building blocks that make the foundation of our belief system in ourselves.

The importance of small changes

For this reason, experiencing small successes is key to moving through the stages of change. Failure to change usually occurs when people attempt to change too quickly, or before they have committed themselves to a systematic and sequential plan. This can be damaging as it reinforces low self-efficacy and the belief that one cannot or will not change.

The dangers of negative feedback

Evidence indicates that humans are most sensitive and responsive to the negative. You only have to watch the evening news to realize that disaster stories are far better at drawing our attention than feel good stories. Based on this reasoning, the stages of change model incorporates numerous processes that teach readiness skills to slowly and gradually guide individuals through each of the 5 stages of change.

The Stages of Change model indicates that during the process of change, negative feedback more easily undermines one’s confidence, than for encouragement to build it. Self-doubt can often lead to not trying or to fearful efforts that quickly and easily confirm the negative self-evaluation. For example, when a beginning exerciser starts an overly aggressive running program that is absent a strong support system, he or she rarely experiences success. Feelings of failure arise when the lone runner is forced to walk parts of a 20-minute run. If that same person joined a friend or running group and used a slow, gradual walk/run approach, he or she has a greater likelihood of experiencing feelings of success.

Finally, the challenge to change is a daunting process for even the most strong-willed. As we have learned, willpower alone is not enough to shift our patterns. In order to rid ourselves of a habit we need a systematic and sequential plan that provides us with the opportunity to experience success and in turn build our self-confidence. For people like Larry Birckhead, running a 10K is a grand achievement; but it all begins not with poetry but prose, one foot in front of the other. One step and then a stride.

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