how to change yourself and/or your life



There’s nothing you can’t do if you get the habits right. — Charles Duhigg


Things fall apart.

On the day my ex-husband left a voice mail for my therapist telling her to tell me that he was filing for divorce, I started smoking again.

Of the vices available to me, smoking seemed the lesser evil. Besides, I’d kicked it once, I told myself and others, so I knew I could do it again.

I declared to anyone who caught me in the act of lighting up that I would quit on the day my divorce finalized, which I expected to take less than a year.

It took two and a half.

I had read that it takes the average smoker about 8 or 9 failed attempts before they stop. I knew that my brain would have to throw down new habits over the bad habits – it would have to learn to automatically drive past the Beverly Hills gas station with the gleaming interior and rows on rows of imported chocolate bars where it had become my routine to buy my Capri Ultra Lights – and I knew that could only happen with repetition.

So instead of quitting cold turkey – and setting myself up for failure – I decided that nonsmoking was a skill I would practice, for longer and longer periods of time.

At first it was only for half a day, and then a day. But the act of riding out the nicotine craving, over and over again, laid down the new neural pathway. As that groove in my brain got a little bit deeper, abstaining got a little bit easier. I would count the days without a cigarette —

— then have a fight with my boyfriend, or spiral into a pit of despair and worry about my kids and/or expenses and/or the future which would send me back to that slender cigarette between my fingers, the flame, the first inhalation.

After two or three or five days — however long it took the pack to run out — I would return to my nonsmoking practice.

Soon I was nonsmoking more days in a month than I was smoking, and then I was only smoking occasionally, and then I wasn’t smoking at all.


I’ve since learned that the old grooves in your brain – the grooves of that bad habit – never disappear. They exist beneath the new, better habits you’ve simply layered on top. It takes three weeks of practicing the desired activity everyday in order to turn it into an actual habit, something you can do (or not do) without thinking about it.

But the problem is stress.

Because stress is a bitch.

People will stop drinking or smoking or snorting cocaine. They’ll even start to consider themselves recovered. But sooner or later life dumps the kind of stress that collapses those new habits until the old bad brain grooves reign again.

The trick is to prepare a plan for coping with that stress so you won’t be undone by it.

I use what Heidi Grant Halvorson refers to as “if-then planning.”

It works like this: you decide ahead of time the specific action you will take if some specific thing happens.

If it is 7:00 pm, then I will go to a spinning class.

If I don’t make all my calls before lunch, then I will complete them at 1:30.

If I wake up at 6 am, then I will write for an hour before breakfast.

Heidi writes:

One study looked at people who had the goal of becoming regular exercisers. Half the participants were asked to plan where and when they would exercise each week (e.g., “If it is Monday, Wednesday, or Friday, then I will hit the gym for an hour before work.”). The results were dramatic: weeks later, 91 percent of if-then planners were still exercising regularly, compared to only 39 percent of nonplanners! Similar results have been shown for other health-promoting behaviors, like remembering to do monthly breast self-exams (100 percent of planners, 53 percent of nonplanners), and getting cervical cancer screenings (92 percent of planners, 60 percent of nonplanners).

These plans are effective, Heidi tells us

Because they are written in the language of your brain, the language of contingencies. Human beings are particularly good at encoding and remembering information in “if X, then Y” terms, and using these contingencies to guide their behavior, often below their awareness.

Once you’ve formulated your if-then plan, your unconscious brain will start scanning the environment, searching for the situation in the “if” part of your plan. This enables you to seize the critical moment (“Oh, it’s 4 p.m.! I’d better return those calls.”), even when you are busy doing other things.

Since you’ve already decided exactly what you need to do, you can execute the plan without having to consciously think about it or waste time deliberating about what you should do next. (Sometimes this is conscious, and you actually realize you are following through on your plan. The point is it doesn’t have to be conscious, which means your plans can get carried out when you are preoccupied with other things, and that is incredibly useful.)

In my case, I tell myself

If I am tempted to buy cigarettes, then I will tell myself I am a strict nonsmoker, take pride in my resolve and drive right past the store.


If I am tempted to smoke, I will run through all the reasons I need to quit, take pride in flexing my willpower and drink water or meditate instead.

I have battle-tested these tactics – and, for me, they work.

Thank God.


Tim Ferriss once remarked to me that men who learn how to be successful with women “tend to be successful in other areas of life.”

Which just means that life doesn’t much like your attempts to compartmentalize it. When we make improvements in one area, the effects – the boosted confidence, the skills you’ve acquired, the greater sense of well-being, the willingness to take a risk — spill over into other areas. Everything connects. You can’t lift one piece without finally lifting up the whole thing.

(It works the other way as well. Take one piece down, and other parts of your life go down with it. When I started smoking, for example, I stopped doing other things: working out, sleeping enough, eating enough, paying parking tickets. I am not proud.)

At the same time, your willpower is a limited resource. If you spend it all on making nice with your psycho boss whom you secretly despise, and on carefully not sleeping with that ex-lover you’re still wildly attracted to even though you know he’s all kinds of No Good…then you’re much more likely to eat that red velvet cupcake – cupcakes — from the fabulous bakery on San Vicente.

(This is one of the reasons you’re much more likely to be successful if you focus on one goal at a time. It makes sense to focus your willpower on one thing instead of diluting it across many things.)

It’s why we’re more vulnerable to temptation when we’re tired, or sick, or stressed, or at the end of a long and difficult day. The willpower muscle has gone to jelly.

In THE WILLPOWER INSTINCT, Kelly McGonigal explains:

Smokers who go without a cigarette for 24 hours are more likely to binge on ice cream. Drinkers who resist their favorite cocktail become physically weaker on a test of endurance. Perhaps most disturbingly, people who are on a diet are more likely to cheat on their spouse. It’s as if there’s only so much willpower to go around. Once exhausted, you are left defenseless against temptation – or at least disadvantaged.

The good news is, you can build up the willpower muscle like any other muscle – slowly, over time, through the exercise of it.

This information helped motivate my quest to stop smoking. I quit for my health and for my kids, but also because I wanted the boosted willpower to apply to other areas of my life. That, I thought, would be cool.


When I started working out again, I noticed something interesting.

I have developed the habit of going to Purebarre, an intense 55 minute class that combines movements from yoga, pilates and ballet. I have a love/hate relationship with it. I can force myself to go – possibly because of my newly strengthened willpower – also because it is sculpting a stomach I will shamelessly reveal to my boyfriend at every opportunity (“Yes, Justine, I can see your audacious abs. Put your shirt down.”) — but on the drive there I will bitch and complain inside my head. Don’t want to do this don’t want to do this really don’t want to do this oh God maybe go to Starbucks instead and have a cakepop.

But when I pull into the garage underneath the plaza that houses the studio, my body suddenly feels…perked up, like a dog lifting her head when someone throws steak on the barbecue. Even as that dialogue continues in my mind – maybe there will be an earthquake and I won’t have to do this – my body feels anticipatory and eager.

The spirit may be weak, but the flesh seems quite willing.

When I read the book THE POWER OF HABIT, by Charles Duhigg, I started to understand.

Habits are created when you put together the “habit loop” of cue, routine and reward, and cultivate the craving that drives the loop. The actual habit emerges when you start craving the reward as soon as you see the cue. Your brain shifts from spiking with pleasure when it gets the reward, to spiking with pleasure in anticipation of the reward. (Pavlov. Dogs. That.) When the anticipation goes unfulfilled, you experience the kind of craving and longing that just might drive you nuts.

What I had started to crave was the feeling I get at the end of a Purebarre class. It’s a sense of accomplishment mingled with a serious hit of endorphins. In short, I feel like a stud.

My brain had linked that sense of well-being to the act of driving into the underground parking lot. Pulling into the lot (and looking, sometimes desperately, for a parking space) is the cue. It triggers the anticipation of the feeling I know I will get after 55 minutes of hell.

(I am exaggerating, Purebarre, you know I love you. I don’t really think that you’re a hell. Maybe just a tiny little corner of it.)

So when you are trying to develop a new habit, it’s essential that you choose a simple cue (like lacing up your running shoes) and a clear reward (like a midday treat after your jog). The habit becomes the thing, the routine, that happens in between.

Says Duhigg:

But countless studies have shown that a cue and a reward, on their own, aren’t enough for a new habit to last. Only when your brain starts expecting the reward – craving the endorphins or sense of accomplishment – will it become automatic to lace up your jogging shoes each morning. The cue, in addition to triggering a routine, must also trigger a craving for the reward to come….

…Cravings are what drive habits. And figuring out how to spark a craving makes creating a new habit easier.


To transform a bad habit into a good habit, you keep the old cue and deliver the old reward – but change what happens in between. Instead of the old routine (smoking), you insert a new one (sipping water or herbal tea, or meditating, or connecting with a friend). But this requires you to become aware of exactly what it is that you crave (a sense of relaxation, momentary escape, social bonding) as well as the cue that triggers it (stress, writing-fatigue, alcohol, clubbing, the smell of cigarette smoke).

Says Duhigg:

Almost any behavior can be transformed if the cue and reward stay the same.


Sometimes change requires one more ingredient if it’s to take permanent hold.


A group of researchers at the Alcohol Research Group in California interviewed AA members to see why habit replacement on its own didn’t seem to be enough. Alcoholics who practiced those techniques could stay sober – until stress raised its ugly head and shot their new routine to hell.

But alcoholics who believe in some kind of higher power were much more likely to hold onto their sobriety.

Researchers realized that it was belief itself that mattered. AA trains people to believe that life will get better. Whether it takes the shape of God, or a rather vague higher power, there is something to believe in when they can’t believe in themselves.

And once they learn to believe, that skill spills over into other parts of their life.

Until they believe that it is possible for them to change.

As Duhigg puts it, “Belief was the ingredient that made a reworked habit loop into a permanent behavior.”


Belief seems to be easier when it’s supported by a community, even if that community is made up of only one other person.

When you see other people change, it’s easier to believe that hey, if that guy did it, you can do it too. Communities make change seem believable in a way it might not if you’re struggling alone.

A 1994 Harvard study looked at people who had remade their lives. Some of them had reworked their habits after experiencing a personal tragedy, or watching a friend endure something traumatic. But many people didn’t require a drastic event to shake up their lives; like AA members, they could change because they “were embedded in social groups that made change easier.”

“Change occurs among other people,” says psychologist Todd Heatherton. “It seems real when we can see it in other people’s eyes.”

I wonder if that’s because other people tend to treat us more kindly than we treat ourselves. Pay attention to the self-talk that loops through your head on a daily, even hourly basis, and tell me this: is it positive or negative? Would you talk that way to a friend, or a stranger, or, really, to anyone?

Writer and motivational speaker Sean Stephenson points out that

We often think that we have to “find” ourselves in life. Yet we don’t have to search the world to find ourselves. We create ourselves every moment, and we do so through our language, through what we say to ourselves on a regular basis.

When I think of some of the things I’ve been known to say to myself – I’m stupid, I have fat thighs, and fun little tidbits like that – the idea that I’m “creating” myself with this language is, how do you say, fucking depressing. If there’s a voice in my head yammering about how I’m a loser, incompetent, powerless, is it any wonder that my self-confidence will flicker in and out like a candle in the wind?

Because that saying – You have to see it to believe it – turns out to be wrong. It’s the other way round. The beliefs that we’ve internalized from others or acquired on our own become a filtering system for the world. The brain is primed to pick up and interpret things in a way that will support pre-existing beliefs, and reject, deny or minimize the things that don’t.

We believe our own personal reality into being.


I can’t speak for men, but as a woman I can say that this culture seems quite happy to support and reaffirm any sense of inadequacy I might have. But that’s okay, the culture tells me, because I can still learn ten ways to look seven years younger and ten pounds slimmer in the eight must-have fashion items of the new season that is six minutes away from turning into the next new season that will have its own can’t-miss twenty pieces to reinvent my now dangerously outdated wardrobe. I can Botox and style and highlight and diet and liposuction and shop and tummy tuck my way to perfect self-confidence, because that’s what self-esteem is all about, right? (The secret to life, boys and girls, is this: a fabulous makeover!)

(Not to mention that plastic surgery is just another choice that today’s post-feminist woman is free to choose as she sees fit, just like when she chose to give up her high-powered law career to stay home with the kids because if she didn’t, who would, although it was indeed her own choice freely chosen because it’s not like the impossible hours and lack of decent maternity leave and underlying boys’ club mentality and snide attitudes about the “mommy track” ever had anything to do with it. Of course not. But I digress.)

The culture tells me that I can make the choice to change. To improve myself. And the way to change, it seems, is to buy shit, including a zillion self-help titles that littered the aisles of Borders before the company went belly-up.

But once you’ve learned to loathe yourself – or at the very least, to view your naked self in the mirror with a kind of mild dismay – it’s hard to change, or believe you can change, in the face of your own self-directed verbal abuse. When I was a kid, my father would yell at my sister and me to set the table. This tactic proved less than effective. It doesn’t make much sense that the mental equivalent of yelling at myself to lose five pounds or clean out my email or go to that killer punishing yoga class that’s too advanced for me anyway…will prove any more effective.

I didn’t manage to quit smoking because I called myself a fucking moron every time I broke down and had a cigarette, or even for picking up smoking in the first place (I was in college, old enough to know better yet crushing on a tall lanky grad student who would smoke across from me in the pub and make it look elegantly, languidly cool). I learned to ride out the craving because of how I learned (am still learning) to be in the moment, to feel my feelings without seeking distraction or escape. The moment passes – and takes the craving with it. And I could hang with myself, be fully present and aware, with an attitude of loving-kindness.

I surrender to the moment without trying to control or abuse it. Or myself, for that matter.

And that, perhaps, is the irony of change: real change seems possible only when you accept yourself as you already are, your life as it already is. When you pursue the change not out of loathing, but love and self-care.

Because when you love someone, you want the best for her. You wish her the vibrant health and fulfilling relationships and wondrous life you know she deserves. And when she regresses, or makes mistakes, or seems uncertain, or doesn’t believe, that’s okay, because you can believe for her.

Be good to her.

Mar 11, 2012

17 comments · Add Yours


So having trouble returning to my running and healthy eating habits after some really bad stress and awareness of more to come. whee. But I believe that getting them back and taking care of myself will facilitate handling the stress better, so I can do it. I can.

I just notice I truly don't have the energy to do everything when I'm under so much stress. It's like, feed myself crap, manage to stay awake and not break out sobbing in public (mostly), and we can call the day a win sometimes.


I’m pretty sure that reading your blog can be directly linked to improving my quality of life.

As I finished reading this post, my eyes started to tear up just a little bit and I realized you had told me exactly what I needed to hear. After some stressful holidays I’ve spent the last two months tripping over myself at every opporunity. I’ve struggled to find the cause, sifting through my diet, my daily activities, and my sleeping habits trying to find the variable that’s dragging me down.

I always forget to check under the hood.

It’s like I managed a doubled version of the problems you’re describing; I fell into an old habit during a stressful period, and my old habit was negative self image. A couple years ago the most positive thing I’d be likely to say of myself was “I somehow manage to get things done despite being an absolute fuckup.”. With time I managed to convince myself that getting things done meant I wasn’t a fuckup, but recently I’ve been sabotaging myself with that persistent unconscious feeling that I’m actually incompetent and every success is wrestled out of the maw of failure only because I’m too stupid to give up.

I already know this idea is incorrect but I’m addicted to the self abuse. It’s a grim sort of comfort to think that you’re worthless because you can hold yourself to that standard and congratulate yourself just for surviving another day. Life is simpler when you’ve decided that you’ll never amount to anything.

I pulled myself up out of that hole once, but jumped right back in when I got scared. I needed someone else to remind me that I’m not special; if a friend was thinking this way, I’d remind them that life is hard and good people make bad decisions all the time. Amazing people aren’t born perfect; they work hard to overcome their flaws. I don’t succeed in spite of myself; I succeed because I can change myself.

I will succeed because I can change this habit.

With a little bit of help from someone wiser.


Jesse Pinkman: “How can you not hate yourself?”
Rehab therapist: “I did hate myself, for a long time. … Self-hatred, guilt, it accomplishes nothing. It just stands in the way.”
Jesse: “Stands in the way of what?”
Rehab therapist: “True change.”

That’s what I thought of when I read this.


Justine, as usual great post.
Thanks for this post, I too smoke, I have quit a bunch of times,10 to be exact and I’m smoking again, its been 2 years since I’ve started smoking again.
I have been wanting to quit again recently and this post is just the kick in the ass I needed and now thanks to this post I have some “tools” I haven’t tried before and these will go into effect immediately


Could we teach habit changing and dealing with negative emotions in grade, middle and high school?


Good stuff, Justine. Thanks for sharing.


It’s been an unusually warm winter here in New England, and it looks like spring is already here to stay (those of you who have never lived in a northern state need to understand that winter usually lasts 14 mos.). This has of course perked me into wanting to make serious life changes. So this post is very timely.

I made the decision yesterday to start stretching again after three years of physical inactivity. It’s a small, easy start that gives a large payoff relatively quickly. Next will be aerobic exercise, then a yoga class. I know I can do this, because I’ve managed in the past to run/speed-walk three miles, three times a week. Not a huge distance, but for someone as non-inclined to conscious exercise as me, pretty damn good. And it made me feel much better, not to mention feel stronger and breather easier. 45 minutes, three times a week. Like I can’t afford the time?

After I get on track w/ the body stuff, the next plan is to write fiction for 30 minutes in the morning every day. Through such small steps, good things are achieved.


This was the perfect post for me today as I’m starting my morning habit of writing …today! Your posts are wise, deeply thought out, and personal in a way that connects with (read everyone’s comments) all of us.


I read this post to my best friend who has been smoking on and off for a year. Each time he gives it up, he does so for longer. He felt very much encouraged and motivated by this post. On his behalf, thank you. :)

As for myself: Even though we often know that the negative stories we tell ourselves are not helping us be better people and are a downer, I think often because the result is not readily apparent, it’s hard to remember that being good to yourself is just as important, if not more.

Perhaps more, because you are with yourself at all times. This is where meditation comes in handy, I think. It makes us aware of the deadly effect our negative self-stories have on us. :)


You have so much good stuff in here, but my favorite is the quote from the Willpower Instinct about how our willpower can only go so far…and how it we have it stretched too thin in one place, then we don’t have any leftover for elsewhere. This is fabulous and I plan to share it!


I know I’ve been away from the comments section lately, but want you to know I read and appreciate every single post and am frequently blown away by them (sometimes so blown away and/or touched that I literally don’t know how to respond).

@Jess Corra Yes, I think there are days when we should be easy on ourselves and just be happy we got through them. What has really impressed me over the last few years is just how *physical* strong emotion is. When you’re stressed out, you have to treat yourself as if you have a cold or something — kindly, nurturing, knowing that you’re under the weather.

@John Colburn I hear you on that. I’ve carried a self-image from high school that has not aligned with reality for a very long time, and yet I continued to cling to it. I found a certain comfort in it, because it was familiar, and because it was a cop-out. Finally the objective evidence against it mounted up and broke it apart — and/or else I was finally ready to outgrow it and move on. I am my own worst enemy (I know, I know, “welcome to the club!”).

@asraidevin When I think about how so much of the stuff I’ve learned directly relevant to living a full and satisfying life happened *outside* of school, I get pissed. At the very least, education should give you a sense of what you don’t know (that is important) so you can go out and learn it on your own. Education should prepare you for lifelong self-education, since true learning never stops.

@Jeff P. Small steps. Kaizen. Talking about something I wish I’d learned a long time ago….


Please don’t put your shirt down!!! Show off those bodacious abs as they are there as proof of your resolve, dedication, and bad ass-ness that the rest of the world will benefit from… be inspired by… and forge a new path in honor of. Not smoking, not drinking, not doing the million and one things that we are driven to do in spite of knowing better is the way of the primal. We try it out we find it doesn’t resonate with our vibrant self and then we have a nugget of gold to offer the world as a gift. I believe that it is the way of the healer. I would rather seek advice from someone who has been to the basement of life for they would know best how to return to the ground floor and then work up from there. Thanks for sharing your journey to the top floors (and your abs).


Thank you for a wonderful post. You’ve put together many thoughts that I’ve been mulling over the past few years. I’ve recently been very interested in habits. I work with college students at the “developmental” level and teach college study strategies and developmental writing. I’ve looked at some of the sources you’ve mentioned (and will seek out the others – thank you), and you’ve really summarized and synthesized so many of the points so nicely.

If you don’t mind, I would like to print this out and use it as an end of the semester reading/response activity. Of course, I would credit you and cite your blog. If not, I’ve still enjoyed reading this and appreciate the resources.


Another great serendipitous piece, thanks! Love reading your blog.


Ahh, so much to ponder in this post. Thank you, from someone who has just today stopped eating dairy and is starting to want to return to meditation and has just maybe found that the two can combine in a very nice way indeed to become a new habit.

(Although I don’t find meditation nearly as comforting as I do sucking down a chocolate eclair with cream in the middle, so perhaps this needs some thought reworking. But lots to think about and reread here :)


Really find your posts so thought provoking and I Thank you.


I’m new to your site but great, motivating pieces! And I love that cupcake place on San Vincente! Omg! Their pastries are in my top 10 things I miss about L.A.!


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