Today we’re focusing on a powerful metaphor for lasting habit change, and it’s this:

Think of habits as puzzle pieces.

Most obviously, habits include actions and behaviors, like brushing teeth before work, walking the dog, wine with dinner, or Netflix before bed.

However, habits are also intangible.

These “invisible” ones go mostly unrecognized, but are the foundations to our behaviors and deserve our attention. Each habit is a puzzle piece to the greater picture of our lives.

The intangibles are the reasons people can be quite successful with short-term change, but not long-term. When we focus only on behavior change, and don’t address the underlying habitual beliefs, thoughts, feelings and emotions, we inevitably return to old habits.

These intangible surrounding puzzle pieces lock our behaviors in place.

For example, you have habitual thoughts about your body; people and relationships; your work; the roles you play; and what success looks like.

The feelings and emotions you experience when you think these thoughts are also habits. These are what I’m calling invisible, or intangible, habits – the crucial puzzle pieces, that influence our decisions and actions, like whether we:

  • wake up a bit earlier to prime our day, or hit snooze
  • make time for exercise and self-care, or neglect ourselves as we prioritize others
  • eat the carrot or the cookie
  • go to bed, or binge-watch Netflix

What we can easily see are the behaviors, so that’s where we tend to focus our attention. However, what we don’t see are the invisible, inner workings, which lead to those actions.

And it’s HERE that we strike gold with habit change!

As you think of a puzzle, you can see how the pieces are like lock and key to each other.

  • A t.v. in the bedroom makes it more likely that you’ll watch t.v. before bed, rather than read a book.
  • A toaster on the counter makes it more likely that you’ll have toast for snack, rather than an apple.
  • Red light foods in the fridge or pantry, will eventually get eaten.
  • Having your phone within reach makes it more likely you’ll use it, even when un-necessary.

As the years go by, we pave into our neurological pathways certain thought-patterns and emotional-themes, which follow us across circumstances, cities, careers, and relationships.

If and when this happens, it’s a sign that important puzzle pieces didn’t change, that needed to. Hence the saying, “Wherever you go, there you are.”.

The puzzle analogy helps us see two main struggles – and possible solutions:

  1. The new puzzle piece (desired habit) doesn’t fit the surrounding pieces (our other habits).

    Sometimes we need to reshape or replace the surrounding pieces, before the new puzzle piece will fit.

    For instance, if you want to achieve consistency with a morning workout, other habits like earlier bedtime, joining a class, or hiring a trainer may need to happen first. This may then require other shifts, like earlier dinner, less evening wine and screen-time, organizing clothes and gym bag before bed, and so forth.

    As you can begin to imagine, any of these may also require shifts in the intangible habits as well. Like, if you think that waking at 5:30am is for the birds and “morning-people”, but not you, good luck with your new 6am habit. If you believe that as a woman you’ll get too bulky lifting weights, good luck enjoying your new strength training program.

    If we miss adjusting just one of these surrounding pieces, our new habit may not fit, and therefore won’t last.

  2. The puzzle is already complete. This doesn’t mean it’s complete in the way we desire, but it’s complete as in full… as in there is simply no more room for another piece to fit.

    Try as we might, pressing a piece on to an already completed puzzle doesn’t work.

    As we cram more into our lives, without letting go of what we currently have, we lessen our ability to effectively bring “new” in. Signs that we have too many puzzle pieces include chronic overwhelm, distraction, forgetfulness, stress, anxiety, mental fatigue, tension, ineffectiveness, avoidance, and procrastination.These can definitely signal other things, but they are also common signs of too much going on… Too much in our space… too many puzzle pieces for our puzzle.

    We must clear out, declutter, let go, release, breathe, create space before inviting in anything more.

Ask yourself:

  • What is the exact habit I want to change, and why is that important to me?
  • What puzzle pieces (habits) are currently locking this habit in place and preventing my success?
    (Look to your triggers, your environment, the people in your life, your daily routines and structure, as well as your intangibles – your beliefs, thoughts, feelings and emotions, to get a really honest picture of the framework that’s holding your current habit in place.)
  • What pieces might need to be removed or adjusted, so I can create more space?
  • What puzzle pieces would lock-and-key my new habit in place?