3 Steps To Breaking Bad (Habits)

habitsOkay, all you New Year’s resolution people – this one’s for you.

A habit in and of itself is not necessarily a bad thing.
Our brain likes making habits, because habits allow the brain to function more efficiently.

Take, for instance, the action of backing a car out of the driveway. Because of the multiple steps, skills and considerations involved, what most drivers find to be a relatively simple task would take absolutely forever to accomplish if our brain didn’t create a habit out of all of these factors and then file away this habit for later, repeated use.

Can you imagine a world in which everyone drove the same way they did when they first got behind a wheel? Holy Hannah! That’s a world without habits.

So the ability of the brain to form habits is actually a good thing. They allow the brain to function more efficiently. Habits only become a problem when they encourage unhealthy behaviors, like snacking late at night or grinding our teeth.

This is how it works.
According to Charles Duhigg, author of The Power of Habit (an interesting look at the science of habit formation and change), our brain converts a set of actions into an automatic routine, or habit, in a process called “chunking.” And when a habit is developed, it appears in a habit loop. The habit loop consists of the following parts:

• First, a cue or trigger tells your brain to go into automatic mode. In the example above, the trigger might be the act of putting your car in reverse.

• Then, the brain engages in a particular routine associated with that trigger. The routine associated with a habit can be either physical, cognitive or emotional, or a combination of all three. In our example, the routine is primarily a physical one consisting of the series of steps required to back the car out of the driveway.

• Finally, a reward reinforces the habit. In this case, the reward is that you were able to back your car out of the driveway without veering into your neighbor’s yard and running over her prize petunias.

As the reward reinforces the routine, the cue, routine, reward loop becomes more and more automatic and . . . voila! . . . a habit is formed.

Now you see why habits are so hard to break.
Remember the part about how habits allow the brain to function more efficiently? Once a habit loop is established, the brain stops participating fully in the decision-making, and the pattern unfolds automatically.

So, we have to deliberately choose to change a habit, and we have to go about it systematically. Here’s how . . .

3 Steps To Breaking Bad Habits

habitsStep 1: Figure out your habit loop.
Let’s say . . . for arguments sake . . . not that I have any personal experience with this, mind you . . . that you have a habit of always eating a high-carb snack in the evening.

Think about it. What is your trigger each time? Are you hungry or bored? Or is the trigger more of an emotional one, like sadness, anger or loneliness? Write down the answer to this question in a daily log. What pattern do you discover?

And the routine? We know that one. It’s going into the pantry, grabbing that leftover bag of Cheetos, and inhaling it.

Or so I’ve heard.

Finally, what is the reward? Well, you feel better in some way. Your tummy feels full, and that alleviates your hunger. You’ve occupied yourself with an activity, and that takes care of your boredom. Or, your action has produced a nice carb high (and, later, a carb coma) that helps alleviate your uncomfortable feelings for awhile.

Step 2: Get creative.
Once you know your loop, you then have an opportunity to consider other actions you can implement when you experience your trigger, actions that will offer you the same sought-after reward. This is your chance to be creative, think out of the box.

For instance, if you find that you’re always hungry in the evening, you could make a point of having healthier snacks on hand. Alternately, you could plan on eating a larger and/or more protein-filled dinner so you don’t feel hungry later on.

If it’s boredom that triggers your snacking, you might jot down a list of non-eating activities that would occupy your attention without adding calories (like reading, watching TV or working a puzzle). And if this evening boredom is a regular dilemma for you, you might consider the possibility of adopting a new hobby or joining a club or class that meets in the evening.

If it’s emotions like sadness or loneliness that trigger your eating, you could probably think of other actions that would directly, and more permanently, improve your mood, like calling or meeting a friend, writing in a journal, or making an appointment with a counselor to explore the origins of your feelings and different alternatives for addressing them.

Step 3: Substitute
The final step in breaking bad habits is to begin substituting the new, healthier action for the unwanted one.

I know. This is the hard part. And there’s no magic pill here. Habits that took years to form can’t be changed in one day, and changing them will take some work.

But, as Duhigg notes in his book, “Once you understand that habits can change, you have the freedom — and the responsibility — to remake them. Once you understand that habits can be rebuilt, the power becomes easier to grasp, and the only option left is to get to work.”

So let’s get to work.

I for one am off to buy some healthy snacks.

What about you? Do you have any tips on breaking bad habits that might help the rest of us keep our New Year’s resolutions? Do you have a couple of habits you’d like help breaking this year? Share your thoughts with us in a comment below.

If this post got you thinking, you might also like 6 Creative Combacks to Combat Your Inner Critic or Conquering Our Inner Toddler – Letting Others Help.

Or, if your New Year’s resolutions include a promise to take on something new, you might want to check out Try Something New for 30 Days, a short, lighthearted Ted Talk by Matt Cutts, an engineer at Google.

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2 Responses to 3 Steps To Breaking Bad (Habits)

  1. Linda Lochridge Hoenigsberg says:

    Hi Anne,
    This post reminds me of the work I do in my practice. Dialectical Behavior Therapy seeks to teach skills that one can use when they are triggered, trading their normal “go to” response for a healthier one. It works, and the way you wrote about it makes it accessible for all of us! Thanks…and I wonder what I can substitute for the huge piece of chocolate cake my husband so thoughtfully brought home from the market? A carrot? A piece of celery? I think not…but once that one last piece of cake is gone, I’ll start again (wink).

    • Anne Barker says:

      Linda, thanks for checking in here! It’s good to see you again. And I’m so glad you were able to make a connection between the DBT work you do and the habit-breaking steps in the post. I must admit to a lack of familiarity with the nuts and bolts of Dialectical Behavioral Therapy, but I am often intrigued by the ideas involved when I hear others refer to them. Your post has reminded me to make a new “todo” about getting some training in this area. Thank you!

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