I discovered a new feature in my old car today.
I returned from the store in a hurry to get inside. A bag of groceries over each shoulder, a third in my left hand, and my free hand juggling a water bottle and a phone. I hit the button to lock the door. It locked—as expected. Then it unlocked—not expected.
I paused. I squinted. I questioned my sanity. I pressed the button again. It unlocked again.
Suddenly, I realized my keys were still in the ignition. Interesting. I didn’t realize my car wouldn’t let me lock my keys in it. I reached awkwardly passed my suit of bags to fish out the keys. Locked the door and continued my quest home.
Ascending the steps to our main floor, I was smiling. It wasn’t the newly discovered feature that surprised me. It was the realization that I hadn’t locked my keys in the car in a long time—long enough that I didn’t even know my car would protect me from it.
I used to lock my keys in the car a lot. So often that my mom made a ritual of slipping a renewed AAA membership into my Christmas stocking.
This brush with past got me thinking about habits. And more importantly, about how I managed to break one that was so deeply rooted.
I’m sure you’ve heard as often as I have that, “Old dogs can’t learn new tricks.” But I think it’s just an excuse. I’ve been able to consistently change any habit I wanted to, however easy or hard.
Whatever the habit, or the degree of difficulty in overcoming, the process is usually the same. These are my 7 steps to break any habit:
- Clearly identify the habit. It may sound obvious, but if you don’t know what you’re doing, you can’t possibly stop doing it. It helps to be self-aware, but it may take a good friend to point it out before you realize you’re doing something that needs changing.
- Truly want to change it. If you don’t really want to change, you won’t. Don’t waste your time forcing it. Dig deep and find conviction. Once you really want it, it’s all downhill. (If you’re having trouble wanting change, watch and listen.)
- Find the behavior that causes the habit. The guy who smokes a lot when under stress and the guy who chain smokes because he’s fidgety and needs something to do have two distinct problems to solve if they want to quit smoking. You need to know the main trigger, or triggers, that set the habit in motion. Then you can fix the root of the problem.
- Eliminate the behavior. Being in a hurry causes me to lock my keys in the car. It also amplifies stress, and ironically causes me to get distracted and make mistakes, putting me further behind than if I had not hurried. So there is plenty of reason to eliminate this behavior. If you can’t eliminate the behavior then you need to replace it.
- Replace the behavior. It’s usually not as easy as just eliminating a behavior. If something doesn’t fill the void, the old habit creeps back in. It’s easier to work on eating good food than on not eating bad food. Eventually, the new habit will take over.
- Create a reminder. When I was first breaking the habit of locking my keys in the car, I took the remote off my key ring to force myself to open the door with the key. Every time I got in the car it triggered the reminder to slow down. Eventually, I got used to using the key. But it bought me critical time in the early days of replacing an old habit.
- Be persistent, not perfect. You’re going to fail. Probably a lot at first. But each time you fail you dig the foundation of your future success deeper. So forget about being perfect and just stick with it until you succeed.
Nearly locking my keys in the car today reminded me that everything needs occasional maintenance. I’m glad my car saved me from reliving the old days, but I’m even happier that my behavioral change was so strong that I’ve lasted this long. This little incident probably bought me a few more years before I do it again.