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Breaking Old Habits: Five Steps to Conquer the Dwindle Effect

breaking old habitsYou made a commitment to walk every evening after work, but you can’t remember the last time you did. Work is so stressful, you’ve decided it’s a bad time to quit smoking. Or your New Year’s resolution not to drink during the week has been long forgotten. No matter how strong your intentions were in the beginning, life’s invariable challenges flare up and make it oh-so-easy to slip back into your old habit. Welcome to the Dwindle Effect.

So what happened? You were on a roll for a while with the yoga classes! Well, emotions came up (about you, your weight, your relationship, whatever) and you didn’t handle the sadness, anger, or fear physically and constructively. Instead, you went into survival mode and reverted back to the familiar but counterproductive habit that you swore you were going to change.

The tendency to backslide comes with almost every new behavior we’re trying to learn. Attitude Reconstruction calls this the “dwindle effect.” When the initial impetus to change an old habit wanes it’s easy to lose sight of our good intentions. It’s common to rebel against the effort a new behavior requires. We conveniently forget why we wanted to change in the first place. Our persistent mind chatter becomes the only voice we hear. When this is the case, we just want to numb out the emotions of the moment with our safe (and yet oh-so-destructive) old habit.

The dwindle effect can either drain our resolve or provide a wake-up opportunity. With a little observation and introspection, we can identify some of the when’s, why’s, where’s, and who’s that derail our best intentions. If we keep the warning signs in mind, we’ll be better prepared to not get derailed from our goal. We can ask ourselves, “What will I do next time I backslide?” Just remember that setbacks are part of the process.

Five Steps to Overcome the Dwindle Effect

How can you fight the dwindle effect? Making a long-term change in life isn’t rocket science, but it does take a good strategy and persistence. With awareness, changing old habits IS possible and sustainable. To actualize your goals and good intentions, do these five things:

  1. At those crucial moments when you’re justifying not following through with the new behavior — deal with your emotions so you can make a new choice! Emotions are just pure energy in the body. You need to move that energy out because your unexpressed emotions are clouding your ability to choose anything new.

    If you’re feeling angry, stomp around or pound a pillow, or scream “I’m just so mad.” If you feel anxiety, overwhelmed, or afraid, shiver, quiver, tremble all up your spine and out your limbs. If you feel sad or down on yourself for your relapse, have a bit of a cry.

    Find a safe place and do it with abandon for just three minutes! This might sound radical, but it’s not. Moving out the emotional energy, you will then be able to remember your goal.

  2. Locate your self-sabotaging thoughts and find contradictions that support you. When you start to waiver it’s very effective to repeat truths that remind yourself of the reality. “I can do this. I hate looking like this. I want to be more fit. I’m doing this for me.”
  3. Make sure the change you desire is doable, specific, reasonable, and that it resonates as what’s true for you. Perhaps you need to set a more realistic or shorter-range goal that’s more achievable. Maybe you can’t become a gym rat five days a week but you could catch a class two mornings fairly easily. As a reminder, write your goal down and post it in a conspicuous place.
  4. Get a buddy who also wants to make a change and establish a regular daily, weekly, or in between check-in for support and accountability. Initiate and contact him or her at the appointed time, no matter what. Each person gets two to five minutes of uninterrupted talking while the other listens. (Set your own reasonable amount of time).

    The first one talks of victories and breakdown, and the next specific steps he or she need to take between now and the next check-in. Close your time by appreciating yourself for your continuing efforts. Then switch and listen while the other person talks about how they are doing with their new behavior. This isn’t a time for advice-giving. It’s merely a time for self-empowerment and support.

  5. When you fall back into your old habit, don’t give up your good intentions altogether. It really IS okay. Get up and start again fresh tomorrow. It’s a brand new day.

Just remember to deal with whatever emotions are sabotaging your efforts and keep checking in to make sure your steps to your goal are small, reasonable, and doable. Keep at it and you’ll conquer the dwindle effect and bask in the new life you’ve created.


Breaking Old Habits: Five Steps to Conquer the Dwindle Effect

Jude Bijou, MA, MFT

Jude Bijou, MA, MFT, is a respected psychotherapist, professional educator, and workshop leader. Her theory of Attitude Reconstruction® evolved over the course of more than 30 years working with clients, students, couples, and families as a licensed marriage and family therapist. Integrating our emotions, feelings, thoughts, speech, and actions, Jude offers both practical and spiritual tools for happiness and a unified theory of human behavior. She is the author of a multi-award winning book, Attitude Reconstruction: A Blueprint for Building a Better Life. Learn more at

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APA Reference
Bijou, J. (2018). Breaking Old Habits: Five Steps to Conquer the Dwindle Effect. Psych Central. Retrieved on October 20, 2020, from
Scientifically Reviewed
Last updated: 8 Jul 2018 (Originally: 27 Aug 2016)
Last reviewed: By a member of our scientific advisory board on 8 Jul 2018
Published on Psych All rights reserved.