Why Old Habits Die Hard

Why Old Habits Die Hard

By Dr. Merle Riepe

President, SOLVE


Have you ever wanted to make a significant behavior change but struggled to break through? Of course, you have – we’ve all been there! Heck, I have several I seem to always be working on.


For this blog, let me use a common example. At some time, we (or someone we know well) have set a New Year’s resolution to lose weight. For most people, attempts to lose weight include eating healthier and increasing our activity levels. We might even hire a trainer or nutritionist to teach us new behaviors and hold us accountable. But inevitably, the weeks go by, old habits revert, and the weight remains. The fault in these resolutions is they are behavior-based, and behavioral modification requires significant willpower and determination – two things humans hold in limited supply. Therefore, it is critical we go deeper – into our mind (add dramatic music for effect) – and identify the thoughts and feelings that are limiting us from accomplishing our goals. But what do we focus on – thoughts or feelings? To answer that, we must determine which comes first so we can get to the root.


Immanuel Kant was a philosopher in the 18th century and spent much of his time thinking about thinking. He developed the following riddle to prompt philosophical thought on this topic. I invite you to fill in the two blank spaces with “feel afraid” or “think I’m in danger” based on the order in which you believe they occur.

  • I see a tiger
  • I ___________
  • I ___________
  • I run away

Which comes first, “I feel afraid” or “I think I’m in danger”?


For Kant, the fear of the tiger was triggered by his thought or perception that he was in danger, and not the presence of the tiger itself. As a result, his behavior (running away) was a consequence of an emotional reaction to his own thoughts and assumptions. In other words, it’s our view of the world and our response to that view which drives our behavior and not the world itself. Hence, the way you treat others and behave around them is based on the thoughts you have associated with them. If you can adjust your thinking, your feelings and behavior will follow. Unfortunately, most leaders, coaches, trainers attempt to change behaviors (i.e., skills workshops, role playing, etc.) without first addressing the thoughts and feelings.


In our weight loss example, the feelings associated with failure to reach our goals typically align in the tired, busy, bored categories (but might also include embarrassment, insecurity, and/or confusion).


Knowing our emotions allows us to diagnose our thoughts with a simple question, “when I’m feeling ______, what am I thinking?” Answering that question brings us to the core tenet of executive coaching using a cognitive-behavioral approach. Once we know that thought, we can evaluate its accuracy, challenge the distortions that exist in the thought, and reframe the thought into a new thought that creates positive feelings that motivate us to accomplish our goals.


In an organizational setting, negative thoughts about a project, a person, or ourselves generate negative emotions (anxiousness, inferiority, disappointment, anger), which result in unproductive behavior (micromanagement, quiet quitting, passive-aggressiveness). Initially, identifying those negative thoughts and distorted core beliefs is incredibly difficult because they are your reality and as clear to you as the sky is blue. However, experimenting with cognitive-behavioral techniques (or collaborating with an executive psychologist) enables you to escape negative thought loops and self-limiting narratives that will naturally influence your behaviors and, thereby, enhance your reputation.


The next time you feel a wave of negative emotion, I encourage you to pause and ask yourself, “what am I thinking?” After you’ve identified the thought(s), evaluate them for accuracy – are you 100% certain your thought is accurate? If you have doubt, it is a signal your negative emotion may be unfounded, and you’ll be best served exploring that doubt and ensuring an accurate conclusion before you act on your emotion. That simple act alone will impact your behavior and, done repeatedly over time, your reputation.


If you, or someone you know, might benefit from support in breaking through an old habit, improving their communication style, or a boost in their executive presence, please reach out and I can share more about the power of cognitive-behavioral coaching.