I was doing some more reading on the train this evening. We all know old habits die hard but we try to change them all the same.

This approach is totally wrong.

Other than intentionally damaging your brain (which I strongly recommend against) it is impossible to actively rewire or remove an existing memory map once it has been firmly established. The more you think about a bad habit, the more it becomes entrenched; not less.

Yet well intentioned people try to change themselves and others using the brute force method all the time, even though it almost never works. You just end up getting frustrated or worse; think the person is intentionally not getting it (or just dumb).

It is why it is so important when learning new things to learn it right from the beginning if you want to become truly good at it. This is true for music, dance and sport. Think of how much money and time golfers spend paying a pro to help relearn their swing. Most golfers start out as hackers and eventually decide to become better at it later.

The best you can hope for is to learn a new habit to replace the old one.

Habits (or skills) are formed when your memory map gets wired by your brain into (or partially into) your subconscious. You don't really have to think about how you do something if it is a habit or skill.

New habits are learned faster and better:

  • From repetition and reinforcement over time- reading about it, learning it, doing it and thinking about it (visualization).
  • By positive reinforcement – you want the wiring for the memory map to be positive so it is repeated not avoided.
  • By remembering to use them – the brain needs reminders and attention brought to the new habit to prioritize the wiring, this is where a good coach comes in. Making habits relevant to what you already do or know.

So once you learn a new habit you can then stop using the old one.

As a mixed blessing: if you don't use it you lose it.

The brain prunes and removes unused links over time, kind of like garbage collection. So if you can avoid the old habit for long enough, it will eventually fade as a habit. This takes longer the more deeply it was wired into your psyche and also depends on your genetics and other factors… some people never forget.

Unfortunately, you can't consciously choose when this will happen either.

So instead of fighting your coworker's or employee's undesirable habits; work with them to develop new ones using positive reinforcement and repetition over time… act like a long-term coach.

Remember, old habits are hard to break (yours included).

P.S. For me blogging helps reinforce what I am learning and thinking about.