Habit overcomes habit.
Habit overcomes habit.

Habits Overcome Habits

“A nail is driven out by another nail; habit is overcome by habit.” ― Erasmus

Attention Required

As creatures of habit, we move through our days without even thinking about many of our actions.

But, if we’re seeking to maximize our productivity, we need to turn off autopilot and start paying attention.

Although we don’t want to become self-absorbed, we do need to become self-aware. 

Nature Abhors a Vacuum

Building upon his own observations and the theories of philosophers before him, Aristotle declared, “Nature abhors a vacuum.” From Aristotle’s limited perspective it appeared that every space must be filled with something — even if only with invisible, odorless air.

Although, scientifically speaking, his premise was later refuted, figuratively speaking, his words contain a profound truth: Something will quickly fill the space.

The Virtual Vacuum

Have you ever tried to stop thinking about something … and suddenly it overtakes your mind? The very thing you tried to shun becomes the center of your attention.

We may try to clear a mental space, but something will inevitably rush to fill it.

The same problem arises when we try to break a bad habit. The harder we try to simply stop it, the more we are pulled toward repeating it.

A Different Kind of 20%

In our previous strategy, we discussed how 20% of our efforts can yield 80% of our results. But there is a different kind of 20% that we need to guard against.

If we’re not careful, a mere 20% (or fewer) of our actions can undermine 80% (or more) of our productivity.

A handful of habits can literally sabotage our success.

For some people, the habit of checking email at the start of the day can derail their entire morning. For others, taking that first bite of a cookie can send them binging on the whole bag.

Do you have any habits that repeatedly undermine your productivity?

The Replacement Approach

Rather than merely attempting to eliminate a habit, the classical scholar Erasmus wisely counsels us to adopt a new habit to drive out the old.

Interesting sidenote: Odd as this may sound, we do derive at least short-term benefit from our bad habits. If we didn’t, would we engage in the activities long enough for them to become habits?

What need does it meet?

All our habits originate from some basic need.

When we replace a bad habit, our new habit should meet the same need as the old — but in a healthier and more effective fashion.

For instance, I had a habit of drinking high-calorie fruit juice throughout the day to quench my thirst. When I set out to lose 30 pounds before my 25th wedding anniversary, I recognized my juice habit would obstruct my goal, so I started drinking a sweet herbal tea instead.

When replacing a habit, it can be helpful to identify the need that it meets.

  • Does it alleviate stress or boredom?
  • Does it bring you comfort?
  • Does it distract you from something you fear?

Change is a Process

Some sources say it takes 21 days to establish a habit; others say it takes 66 days.

Whatever the interval, when you’re trying to replace a habit, be patient. It will take time and perseverance.

Success builds upon itself. It’s best to start by replacing one minor habit before tackling a major one.

Perhaps, if you have the habit of inactivity and typically sit at a desk for long stretches of time, you can find a place to stand periodically as you work.

(Did you know that Leonardo da Vinci, Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, and Winston Churchill all used standing desks?)

The Challenge

Identify the underlying need addressed by a habit you would like to eliminate, and then replace the old habit with a new, healthier habit that meets that same need.


Time Management Strategies

This is the Part 3 in a blog series based upon the book, Don't Eat That Frog! A Liberating Look at Time Management Strategies. If you missed the introduction, you can read it here.


Don't Eat That Frog! A liberating look at time management strategies

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