Piggy in Nagorno Karabakh

Piggybacking: Build and Break Habits With Less Effort

Begin each day as if it were on purpose.
-Mary Anne Radmacher

When I was a little kid my dad used to give me piggyback rides. I remember it being a really great way to get around. I’d jump on his back and he’d do the rest—I just had to hang on. I eventually grew too big for piggyback rides but I never really grew out of liking them.

Lately I’ve been experimenting with an approach to making and breaking habits that shares the same general idea as the piggyback rides I enjoyed as a kid: hitch a ride on something going in the direction I want to go and hold on.

Changing our habits is tough. The hard thing about new habits is getting started. The hard thing about old habits is stopping. Both require a lot of energy—either to build momentum (new habit) or slow old momentum down (established habit).

Once momentum is on our side it becomes much easier to keep going. For example, whenever I stop going to the gym for a while it’s always a struggle to get myself back in the gym. But once I’ve been going for a few weeks I begin to crave it—then it’s hard to get me out.

Maybe for you it’s reading, gardening, running, or something else you’d like to do more of. Inversely, maybe it’s something you’d like to do less of like quitting smoking, refraining from dessert or watching less TV.

With a little awareness and creativity we can use the third law of thermodynamics to our advantage. Think about it as a form of energy jiu jitsu—we absorb the power of an external force and repurpose it’s energy to propel us toward our own goals. In this way we can piggyback on an external event, an internal motivation or another person’s enthusiasm and experience.


Life’s full of surprises that take us in unexpected directions. Things happen to us that we have little or no control over. But using our energy metaphor, what if we simply look at it as one force (us) coming into contact with an opposing force (unexpected event)? Might we be able to harness some of that opposing force’s momentum to do the hard work of change for us in other areas of our life?

Life is what happens to you you while you’re busy making other plans.
-John Lennon

At the beginning of last year, I was tying up loose ends and preparing to leave home to travel indefinitely. During this period I began drinking a glass of wine each night, something I didn’t normally do. Some nights it became two glasses, then most nights. I wanted to change this new habit of mine but at the end of the day a glass of wine always sounded fantastic and second glass usually did too after I had had the first.

Then I came down with the flu during which I had no thirst for wine in the evenings. The force of the flu had stopped my wine habit cold turkey—it was a natural reset button. After I recovered it was easier to not have a glass of wine because I didn’t have to stop drinking—all I had to do was continue not drinking. By disrupting the pattern of my habit and slowing down its momentum the flu had done the hardest part of change for me.


Sometimes our desire to do (or not do) something overrides our desire to do (or not do) something else. When this happens we might be able to piggyback on the energy of our newly discovered motivation to change our habits.

A few years back when I was struggling with the auto-immune disease Hashimoto’s Thyroiditis (a thyroid disorder that disrupts the supply of hormones to my body) I began exploring how to regain my energy. One of the experiments I wanted to try was giving up coffee for a while.

This felt daunting. At the time I was always tired and I was in the middle of transitioning from general manager to consultant at one start up business so I could manage the operations of another start up business. Just imagining my life without coffee hurt my head and gave me a strong desire to hit the snooze button.

After making the transition I took a 3 week trip to Peru. I wanted some time to reflect on things and decided to participate in a 3 day, silent ayahuasca retreat (ayahuasca is a vine found in the Amazon jungle with strong hallucinogenic properties). The retreat would be led by a Quechua shaman who would prepare and administer the plant to help us commune with Spirit. The preparations leading up to the retreat were rigorous and included a strict diet which required that I stop drinking coffee.

So I quit drinking coffee. Just like that.

My desire to participate in the ayahuasca retreat trumped my desire to drink coffee. The task (quitting coffee) hadn’t changed but when I tapped into a stronger why, quitting became easy. When I returned to San Diego I continued to abstain from coffee. There was no all or nothing moment, no big decision, no heroic renunciation. I had liked how I felt over the past 3 weeks and didn’t feel the need to go back to coffee. Once I had stopped not having coffee had become easy—momentum was on my side now. I didn’t have another cup of joe for over a year.


Recently, while in India, I decided to begin a basic exercise routine to keep myself in shape while I wasn’t trekking. I did my workouts in the morning in the courtyard of the guesthouse I was staying at. After one such workout my friend, Julie, had come up to me and asked if she could join in with me next time. She did, and we started having regular morning sessions which we called boot camp. It was easier for her to start because she was able to piggyback off of my experience and know-how—she didn’t need to come up with her own routine. It was easier for me to continue my own exercise regimen because I could piggyback off the excitement she brought to each session.

There is nothing revolutionary in this technique but it works best when we already have a basic vision of where we might like to go. When I’m self-aware, piggybacking has helped me make difficult changes in my life. Here’s a few other examples of things I’ve piggybacked:

– Jet lag from a transcontinental flight helped me revive my morning routine and begin waking up at 5:00 AM again.

– A month long trek in the Himalayas in November where meat was not part of the culture encouraged me to try a 100% vegetarian diet for the first time (I’ve been vegetarian ever since).

– Traveling in regions of India where alcohol is either banned or expensive inspired me to stop drinking in January and February (It’s now almost May and I can count the number of drinks I’ve had in 2017 on one hand).

What we can piggyback is only limited by our creativity, our own self-awareness and our ability to recognize passing opportunities to hitch a ride. Can you think of a time when you inadvertently piggybacked on something? What else might you piggyback on?

Like the piggyback rides I enjoyed as a child, I can choose when to get off. I’m not in complete control of my destination however—that’s part of the thrill of it.

Because who knows where I might end up?

Trekking in India

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Hello. I’m Alasdair.

Hello. I’m Alasdair.

I believe that being aware of who I am and mindful of who I am becoming is the best investment I can make in my life —and that when we focus our efforts within, the rewards naturally flow outward to those we love and through the communities we belong to.