So to break a habit we have to remember that these three elements are constant. But we don't eliminate them, we change them. If we can avoid the trigger, great. But maybe we don't want to give up our morning Grande Expresso Macchiato in order to avoid the cigarette that accompanies it. So we change the routine in a way that still provides the same reward.
To change a behavior we have to be aware that we're doing it. This sounds obvious but habits become so automatic that we never think about them. So study the habit. When does it occur, time of day, its location, how often does it typically happen, the circumstances, your thoughts, feelings. Are you tense, anxious, bored? What are you wearing, who are you with? By gathering this information we can start to change the habit.
Here's where it starts to get interesting. Instead of not doing the problem behavior (willpower alone usually doesn't work), change the doing of the problem. If you feel the urge to binge on Ben and Jerry's New York Super Fudge Chunk (my favorite), put on your most expensive silk shirt and eat with your non-dominant hand. It's paradoxical but it interrupts old patterns. And sometimes the crazier the new behavior the more effective it is.
Now let's break down the components to change the habit: 1.) Identify the habit routine. This is the behavior you want to change. What happens in the behavior. Sitting in front of the TV watching a mindless "reality" show with a bag of Cheetos and a 32 oz. cola. This may take some time and observation. 2.) Next, experiment with different rewards; take your time doing it. This will allow you to determine what the real desire or real benefit is. Maybe a temporary escape from job stress, calmness, comfort, relief from boredom.
Once you've figured out the routine and reward, now identify the cue. Cues fall into five categories: location, time, emotional state, other people, the immediately preceding action. Study this, take notes. Something will become apparent identifying the cue.
The last step is now to have a plan. You may not be able to change the cue--3 PM will always be 3 PM--but you can change the routine and get the same reward. If the cue or trigger is 3 PM and pigging out on junk food is the relief from boredom, take the dog out for a walk or call a friend.
Even though the focus of this post is on habits and their neuronal make-up, we can also change problem behaviors that aren't habits but have become automatic over time. Such as an argument with a spouse over something small that escalates into World War III. Here's an example:
My friend Sol specializes in couples therapy so I always refer couples having problems to him. One of their most common complaints is arguments that start out over something minor like leaving the cap off the toothpaste tube. And the next thing you know it escalates into an all-out battle over a disagreement ten years ago. So Sol tells them to go home and have an argument. Of course, they look at him like he's crazy as they're trying not to argue but he tells them to do it anyway and notice what happens. Doing it deliberately requires them to be aware of what they're doing and they'll stay focused on the toothpaste tube and keep it from blowing up to nuclear war. Or he may tell them to stand in the bathtub with their clothes on and start to argue.
Breaking habits and problem behaviors is pretty simple but hard work and requires time and attention but it can be done. And well worth the work. Oh, by the way, if you want to see something really funny and clever that illustrates the craziness of arguments, Google or go to YouTube and pull up the Monty Python sketch, "The Argument." I think you'll find it hysterical and informative.
So, how did my Swiss Army Knife save me? Well, ever since I was a kid I picked at my nails. I didn't bite them but picked them until sometimes they'd be right down to the quick and bleeding. It was usually unconscious (at least until they became painful) and I did it well into my adulthood. And then one day I had an epiphany ("aha" moment). I didn't pick them until they got to a certain length. So the solution, of course, was to keep them short. Enter my Swiss Army Knife. You know they have those nifty little scissors on them? Perfect for cutting nails. The cue was their length. I never did figure out the reward but it doesn't matter. What matters is that I no longer pick them. See you next time.
Next Time: MINDFULNESS-- ANXIETY ANTIDOTE
THEFEARMONSTER Banned Book Recommendation: Do One Thing Different by Bill O'Hanlon. In this fun and easy to apply book Bill dispels the old adage that problems that have gone on for a long time take a long time to fix and shows how small changes can have a powerful ripple effect. Check it out.