Shape The Path (Or "How I Broke My Starbucks Addiction"

One of my favourite strategies for change is Shape the Path (from the book Switch by Dan and Chip Heath). Shape the Path means making changes in your environment to make it easier to change, thereby reducing the amount of mental work you need to invest in remembering things, using willpower and self control.


The first time I lived right around the corner from Starbucks, I got really excited and quickly fell into the habit of getting a latte every morning. It was such a habit that after I stopped going so often and hadn’t been to this Starbucks in a while, the first time I went back some of the staff were like “What happened to you? We were worried!” That’s how often I was in this particular Starbucks.

One year, I got about 8 starbucks gift cards from different people for my birthday, which was equal parts “Awesome free coffee!” and well founded concern that this was becoming, or had already become, an obsession, or even a part of my identity.  Yikes! I thought, while drinking my totally free latte (listen, I get excited when I get things for free and that is something I will never stop doing!).

Eventually I decided this needed to change. I had the good sense to / made the mistake of adding up the yearly cost of a daily latte. That was a little disturbing. But I also noticed that I wasn’t savouring my lattes anymore - drinking them was becoming automatic, just another part of my way to work routine. And I wanted to start drinking green tea again. Taken on it’s own, I wouldn’t have stopped going to Starbucks only for the financial impact, as non-rational as that may seem. It was the cost, and the addition of the above that made me feel ready to change.

Being kind of a smarty pants, I decided to ween myself off rather than going cold turkey. I know habits are chains of behaviour: to make a habit, you create a chain, and to break a habit, you break the chain (and in the process create a new chain and new habit, which is pretty meta if you think about it).

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I decided the next morning I would take green tea from home, and the day after that I would get a latte, and so on, gradually decreasing my frequency. This way if I was really jonesing for a latte, I could look forward to having one the next day. As my dependency would slowly fall to the wayside, I would add two days in between visits, and so on. Smart plan right?! (Thanks, I’m blushing!).

The first morning I felt really good about my plan, and I made my tea and left for work.  Suddenly I was in line at Starbucks! I looked down at my travel mug full of tea and was like “Wait…. Why am I in here? And Why don’t I remember walking in here??”. It was like I was in a trance like state, and it was embarrassing and pretty freaky.

I sheepishly walked out, disappointed and confused at my lack of general awareness, and apparently, self-control as well. Though, to be fair, our brains do love efficiency and will happily lapse into autopilot mode when walking or driving the same route every day

The next day I gave myself a do-over. Do overs are very important, in my opinion. It’s a small but important way to practice self kindness. Sometimes you just screw things up and need to start over. It’s a thing. On my do-over day, I made my tea, left my apartment, and then turned the corner - I literally changed my path so that I wouldn’t walk by the Starbucks! It was stupid and simple and easy and effective - it took away the need to think hard about changing my routine.  

I could have tried really, really hard with my morning brain to make myself break this habit, and done it. And I’m pretty sure that would have eventually made me feel like getting a latte. You see, the more self control you use, the more quickly it depletes. So when my self control crapped out mid afternoon, I would have found myself snacking on some dark chocolate, and congratulating myself on resisting Starbucks. But really, it would have been all connected. Shape the Path is a strategy I love so much because it makes change easier, and who doesn’t want that. It frees up mental energy and self control to be used in ways that are way more effective, like paying attention to driving, and not having intense road rage. That’s good for everyone.  

Within a few days, I had interrupted my pattern enough that I no longer walked into Starbucks in a weird morning trance. And now when I go to Starbucks - and I live across the street from one these days - I walk in with awareness, I think about what I want (amazingly I discovered sometimes I just want tea) and if I do get a latte, I enjoy the s**t out of it!

If you’re working on breaking a habit, and creating a new one, give some serious thought to how you can Shape The Path, make your life a little easier, and improve your odds of success. If you need to bounce around some ideas on how to do this, let's chat!