Changing Habits: Does One Plus One Equal Three?

paper doll chain 2010 (c) Margaret Lukens
Link habits together for greater impact! (photo by M. Lukens)

I want to challenge a familiar piece of wisdom about habit change. Here’s what I read recently in a (mostly wonderful) column by Laura Vanderkam on

Choose one new habit at a time to introduce: If you want to run, pray, and write in a journal, choose one of these and make it a habit before adding another.

Have you heard this before? I have. And the experiences of many clients and my own life suggest that we may be wise to challenge this “rule.” Here’s why. While it’s true that it is not the most productive to attempt a total life makeover on a single day (so long, New Year’s resolutions!), there are many habits that are linked. This is true of good and bad habits.

I think of one client who wanted to get up earlier to work on a project, drink more water, and get more exercise. She could have begun by choosing one habit, upping her water intake, for example. But there’s very little payoff in that. When I coached her through her choices, she found that the real reason she had a hard time with all of these was because of the regular late-night entertaining required by her job, and she was in the habit of drinking more alcohol than was helpful to getting up early. These four habits — drinking, making time for her project, water, and exercise — were all connected. Once she gave up the drinks during the weeknights, she was better able to get up earlier to work on her project, make time for exercise, and drink more water. In fact, once she returned to her beloved running habit, the water had to come along, and so did getting up earlier.

If she had followed the “only make one change at a time” rule, she could have cut out the alcohol or upped her water, or tried to shoehorn a bit of running into her day, dragging her tired and dehydrated self around the city. But none of them alone offered much payoff. Together with the other habits, each change made her feel and function better. She got the payoff she needed to persevere — she wasn’t just giving something up, she was getting rewards, too.

If you want to “run, pray and write in a journal,” as the Fast Company example suggests, consider the whole constellation of your days and weeks. Then connect those changes to things you’re already doing, and begin with tiny changes.

One tool that can really help you make three positive changes at once is a website developed by Stanford psychologist Dr. B. J. Fogg called

Another is a course developed and taught by Janine Adams called “Simplify Your Life With Habits and Routines.” The next session begins July 19, 2012. Take a look. I highly recommend anything Janine offers.


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