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  • Writer's pictureKim May

Changing our Habits

“Habit is habit and not to be flung out of the window by any man, but coaxed downstairs a step at a time.”

-Mark Twain

Change is hard, especially changing our habits. Compounding the difficulty is often the expectation from others and ourselves, that change should happen quickly. Our modern society is partially to blame for this. Entire bathroom remodels are shown in 30-minute episodes. The 8 Minute Ab work out video did not make $20 million because we are all amazing at being patient. So, we decide need, want, must make a change and then we become utterly defeated because…change is hard, especially changing our habits. And even harder if those habits involve gambling or substance use.

Why is change so hard?

Well, this is complicated and certainly individual differences matter. However, for most of us, change is hard because not changing is just so much easier. Habits are something we do regularly, that often become automatic, meaning we do them without thinking. It is not until that habit is disrupted that we even notice it.

How often do you think about turning on the light in your bathroom? Probably never, you just do it. It is not until you go to your friend’s house who had one of those 30-minute bathroom remodels and you cannot find the light switch to save your life that you think about the action.

Ever notice that you are smoking a cigarette you don’t remember lighting? How about pulling into the liquor store parking lot after work without ever consciously making the decision to stop there? Went to load a bowl and realized it was already loaded? That is us acting automatically and to change that requires a lot more effort, a lot more brain power and often more discomfort.

Why we do not change

According to Denning and Little in their awesome book, Over the Influence, there are three primary reasons why people do not change: resistance, ambivalence, and effort. Let’s break these down.

1. Resistance. Sometimes the resistance is against being told by someone else you must change. We often have a strong, not so positive reaction to being told what to do. However, even if we want to change, we find ourselves “stuck”. By changing, we are leaving the devil we know, and venturing into the great unknown.

2. Ambivalence. This is feeling strongly about two opposing things and it is natural. According to Denning and Little, “harm reduction puts the experience of ambivalence at the center of its philosophy and respect and embrace both sides of your relationship with drugs”. Exploring the ambivalence can be a key part of preparing for change. Rather than denial or lack of motivation, ambivalence often represents an opportunity to be honest about where you are and how to make plans that are realistic for you.

3. Effort. Change can take so much effort, we sometimes become overwhelmed before we get started.

What is required to make changes

1. Motivation. Denning and Little state that “motivation involves having energy, a sense of direction, and the persistence to accomplish things.”

2. Self-Determination. This is best fostered by support and reinforcement from others, a sense of competence and a sense of autonomy.

Change is a process, not an event

Sure, ok we have all heard of those people who make drastic, overnight life changes. Good for them! Most of us are not them. We tend to arrive at change in stages; therefore, harm reduction practitioners believe in meeting people where they are.

The stage of change model, developed by Prochaska and DiClemente identifies six stages.

1. Precontemplation: You are not changing, probably not thinking about changing.

2. Contemplation: You are not changing, but you are starting to think about it.

3. Preparation: You are not changing, but you are about to change.

4. Action: You are changing!

5. Maintenance: You are keeping the change going.

6. Termination: You did it, your new habits are now your “new normal”.

Relapse can be part of changing and if that happens it does not mean you failed. It just means your plan may need to be adapted or you need some new systems, and you can get back on track. Some people do this quickly, while others move back to an earlier stage of change.

Goals are good, but systems are better

Goals are the what, systems are the how. So, if your goal is not to drink on Saturday night, the system is how you will accomplish that. Often goals do not come to fruition initially because we have not given adequate thought into how we will accomplish them. We need a strategy.

A good system to support the goal of not drinking on Saturday night might be the following: On Saturday I will avoid the bar, order food from my favorite restaurant, plan to watch the new series on Netflix, practice using techniques for managing cravings to drink and will call my brother for support if I am having trouble.

Now this may not be the system that works for you, but the above example does a couple of things. It includes avoidance of a trigger (bar), adds something to look forward to (favorite restaurant), incorporates distraction (Netflix), uses empowerment (managing your cravings), and includes support (brother).

Support if you need it

Wherever you are in the stages of change, help is available. Whether you want to examine your substance use or gambling, begin making changes or get support for maintaining your changes, Substance Use Therapy is here. Whatever you are facing, you don’t have to face it alone.


Denning, P., & Little, J. (2017). Over the Influence: The Harm Reduction Guide to Controlling Your Drug and Alcohol Use. The Guilford Press.

About the Author:

Kimberly May, LPC-S, LMFT is a therapist at Substance Use Therapy in Austin, TX. Kimberly works with individuals, couples and families whose lives have been affected by substance use. By utilizing a harm reduction framework, Kimberly works effectively with people in any stage of use. In addition to substance use, she works with other issues such as anger, gambling, anxiety and grief. Contact today to schedule a no-charge, 30 minute consultation.

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