How to Navigate the Phases of Habit Change

how to navigate the phases of habit

Habits don’t die quickly. Especially habits related to binge eating or emotional eating. These habits cling on for dear life, gasp for their last breath, and keep on going. They are like a movie villain who is left for dead, but then pops up with renewed vigor later in the movie.

But eventually, these habits–like all habits–can wear out. They are eliminated, not through killing them outright, but by using the skill of mindfulness to allow them to wear down. Mindfulness does not “fight” with anything. It is not adversarial or combative. Because: what you resist, persists. Rather, mindfulness “blends” with the habit to extinguish it at the root, and then gently builds out positive new behaviors,

In working with people who are trying to change stubborn habitual behavior, I notice that there are roughly three phases that comprise the dynamic process of change:

Phase 1

“I can never change.” Sound familiar? The feeling that things will never improve. The problem is too big, too important, and too old. The binges play a huge role in your  life, much of which isn’t fully acknowledged. Life sometimes centers on this particular eating behavior, and its removal can be terrifying. There is a big up-side to the binges, as they may be your primary coping tool, best friend, and source of comfort and excitement.  In this phase, you don’t know if you really want to change the behavior (all people have mixed feelings). And you have serious doubts that you can change.

Congratulations if you are at this stage and are brave enough to seek help! This is a bigger step than you may realize. Forming an alliance will activate the process of change. If you settle into yourself, start with small changes, and make use of external support, you can get to Phase 2. All you need to do at this point is get to Phase 2.

Phase 2

“I see clearly why I am behaving the way I do, but I still can’t change.”  This is a very shaky stage, because many give up here. But if you stick with it, it will be worth it. As you become more mindful, the layers of your motivations peel away and you gain flashes of insight into your mental processes. You watch yourself saying something like “I’m eating because I am lonely. I’ll feel worse afterward. I know I can call a friend, but I’m gonna eat anyway…” And you eat, and wonder what went wrong.

Remember, insight is not change. Insight is an important step on the road toward change, but it is far from enough. Far. Many gain insight and think their work is done. And many set very high expectations on their behavior after they have gained insight. Then when they fall short of these expectations, they feel bad about themselves, and persist in the binge eating (vicious cycle). Or they say “This mindfulness stuff doesn’t work. This program is useless…” and give up. This is why a frequent homework assignment I give is to just observe behavior without trying to change it. Notice.

In this phase the most important thing is to stay mindful, stay patient, and practice self-compassion. It helps to work with someone through this process–either a friend, coach, or therapist–so that they can provide objective input. In my experience, people fail to notice the small improvements due to their powerful negativity bias (don’t worry, it’s just human nature to do this).

You do improve during this stage, but will need to have it pointed out to you so you can ride that positive momentum. Perhaps the binge ended just a little sooner than usual. Perhaps you stopped after half the cake….Those moments of success must be registered, “freeze framed,” and savored. You need to train yourself to recognize them when they occur. And the inevitable shifts into Phase 1 need to be acknowledged as normal, and not indicative of “failure.”

Phase 3

This works!” After you spent some time in the arduous, often lengthy second phase, small improvements become bigger improvements. You see real change. Your weight shifts. You feel better. You have hope. You feel stronger, and the habits feel weaker. You have built out many positive coping behaviors to replace the old habits.

The pitfall in this phase is to experience a patch of success, and then to assume that the habit is dead. Being weaker, or barely present, is not the same as being gone. Old habits are tricky. Think of the movie villain who seemingly resurrects from the dead three quarters of the way through the movie. Powerful triggers can re-invigorate entrenched habits, and setbacks do happen (setbacks—at any stage— are a natural part of the process of change).

Staying mindful, compassionate, and patient is as important now as ever. Habits can–and do– die. But most people make the mistake of underestimating their habits, and thus being blindsided when they return. As a martial artist, I am familiar with the principle “Never underestimate your opponent.” Those are words to live by in this phase.

The good news is that as you spend more time in this phase, you will notice the old habits getting weaker and weaker and fading into your distant memory. You will settle into a new normal, and that will feel great.

Change is Not Linear

These “phases” are not a clear-cut linear path, but part of a dynamic process. You may go in and out of different phases, depending on any number of factors. Too often, we assume the process of change progresses in a straight line–step one, step two, step three, done. If we circle backwards, that means we have failed. Not true. Change is a dynamic process. If you stay with this process, you can overcome the habit. The most important thing is to not give up.


After years of wondering what all the buzz was, I have now joined Twitter. You can follow me there, where I share whatever I can cram into 140 characters. 🙂


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