Nearly every story of lasting success you’ll hear will have one thing in common: habits. Those who have achieved what they set out to achieve, and sustained that success, have managed to leverage the power of good habits.
But getting the right habits in place can seem like a huge task. After all, you’ve probably got enough going on right now that you don’t need to go building a bunch of good habits — on top of all your other responsibilities.
But luckily, you don’t need to build habits into your life; they’re already there. Nearly everything you do is part of a habit of some sort. It’s just that many habits are one’s we’d rather not have.
So there is no such thing as building a habit from the ground up. You’re simply changing one habit into another.
And changing habits is much easier than you might think — thanks to a little mechanism called the pattern interrupt. It allows you to take an existing undesirable habit, and begin transforming into a desirable one.
The good news is, it’s really simple.
- Identify the unsavory habit you’d like to change.
- Take note of the pattern of emotions, thoughts, and behavior happen as the habituated behavior escalates.
- Early on as your bad habit begins to take its course, practice a pattern interrupt. Do this as often as you can for a given bad habit.
Identify the Habit You’d Like to Change
Almost everything we do in our lives is part of habituated behavior. From reactions, to recurring thought patters, to decision-making — it’s all habituated activity — playing out again and again, with slight variations.
Think of the last time you were short with someone — the last time you lost your cool in a way that you aren’t proud of. Was it a familiar feeling or a completely new one that took you by surprise? Chances are, it’s the former. You know how it feels when you lose your temper. We all do.
What about the last time you ate a whole pint of ice cream when you had resolved to work out? Did you recognize the pattern of thoughts and feelings that led up to that bad habit— such that you knew what it was as it was coming on?
This is where the pattern interrupt can help.
Using Pattern Interrupts to Change Habits
A pattern interrupt is a simple, weird action that you can take to upend habits or processes and change their course. In doing so, you create the opportunity for things to go differently than they usually do. Pattern interrupts make radical change possible and easier to achieve.
What Is a Pattern Interrupt?
I first learned of the concept of a pattern interrupt when I was at a sales training event. It dealt with how to keep prospective customers from hanging up on sales calls — no easy task.
The trainer said that more than 90% of sales calls begin the same way: “hello, my name is blah blah and I’m calling from blah blah company, how are you today?” Most of the time, that intro results in a hang-up or immediate disinterest on the part of the customer. People have been habituated to tune out of calls like that.
The trainer suggested trying a different , and weird, approach — something weird to throw off the habituated behavior. Say something like “Hey, this is blah blah, look, you probably weren’t expecting my call.”
Then pause and wait for a “yeah?”
Once you do that, there are a few different things you can say to swing the call in a more productive direction — which was part of the training. But the key is to interrupt the normal pattern right at the beginning.
It’s a bit weird, and kind of unexpected. But because it is both weird and unexpected, it tends to work. The weirdness interrupts the normal process. The habit is derailed for a few seconds — allowing for things to be changed.
Applying Pattern Interrupts to Your Habits
They key to using pattern interrupts to change habits is to figure out one that is just weird enough to work, but not so weird that you can’t bring yourself to do it when you need to.
A great example of a pattern interrupt that you can try yourself comes from the book The Power of Full Engagement. Jim Loehr and Tony Schwartz recount the advice they gave to a client who was being irritable and short-tempered with both his colleagues and family. He would quickly become critical and speak angrily with them.
Loehr and Scwhartz recommended the client write out the physical feelings that he noticed at times when he expressed his anger in unsavory ways. They suggested that the next time he felt those same feelings welling up during a tough time at work or at home, he interrupt the pattern. He should take pains to smile and take a deep belly breath, nod in acknowledgment, and say something like “I just need a little time to fully process this”.
This isn’t a set-in-stone pattern interrupt, but it has the necessary elements. It’s weird, it’s in stark contrast to what normally happens, and so it creates a bit of space and time — so that a new behavior can take place instead of the normal one.
What to do After the Interruption
Since losing our temper or speaking out of anger is something most of us do, you can try the example from Loehr and Schwartz in your own life.
My guess is that in the next day or two, you’ll feel rising frustration, and you’ll feel the urge to speak out in anger. Instead, try the pattern interrupt. Create some space for yourself, and take the situation in a positive direction.
Keep in mind, the goal of using a pattern interrupt is to create some space and imbalance in habituated behavior by disrupting the normal course of it. You are throwing off the normal way of things for a little bit — but you need to have a way to bring things to a positive place.
Using Pattern Interrupts on Others’ Behaviors
Pattern interrupts are also very useful with others. For those you interact with regularly, you can get a sense of when an interaction might go in a negative direction. Many of these bad interactions are habits of your relationship.
You can change those bad habits with pattern interrupts. Just be creative and open.
You can devise and insert pattern interrupts into your interactions with others, and bring in a more constructive suggestion. Each one will be different, in order to suit different relationships and situations. However, the formula will be the same:
- identify the point of the bad pattern where things tend to go in an undesirable direction — i.e., what emotions and thoughts are happening to drive undesirable behaviors
- create a weird and off-putting, but simple pattern interrupt (like smiling, nodding, and a deep breath) that you can insert to break up the normal course of the bad habit
- the next time the habit’s negative indicators begin playing out, insert the pattern interrupt
Pattern interrupts will feel weird and clunky at first, but that’s okay. Finding one that works for you and your specific habits will take some trial and error. But once you find one, and you find yourself becoming habituated to using it, it’s a great feeling.
Just remember, nearly everything in life is a habit. Change your habits, change your life. It’s almost magic.