Tuesday, May 5, 2009

Breaking Bad Habits

I'm not sure I like the implications of this, but Ann Graybiel, professor of neuroscience at MIT, says that scientists now KNOW that you can never really "unlearn" a bad habit.
"Once it's there, it's there," she says.
So, okay, if we can't "simply delete" bad habits from our brains, what can we do to "stop indulging" in them? Chicago Tribune writer, Karen Raven, had several ideas. Here are some of them -- with my two cents, added, in [brackets]:
  1. Eliminate whatever payoff the habit gives. [If you have a habit of eating ice cream every night before bed, get rid of all the ice cream in your freezer. You might still head to the kitchen for a few nights, only to find the freezer bare. But after a while, you'll stop making the trip. I like the idea, but I'm not sure how the example fits with eliminating the payoff. People tend to gorge ice cream to make them feel better -- that's the payoff. So I'd say that in addition to getting rid of the ice cream (especially if you can't control yourself) it'd be better to find something non-food-related to help you you feel good inside, like a glass of water, some physical exercise, a conversation with someone you really enjoy -- things like that.]
  2. Don't leave a hole where a bad habit used to be. [Substitute new, improved behaviors for old, bad ones. Try bringing your lunch instead of buying it, or eat a piece of fruit before bed instead of a bowl of ice cream. A great way to "fill up" that hole is to engage in something you truly enjoy. We tend to dis-empower our bad habits when we're suitably occupied with things we find compelling.]
  3. Choose wisely. [If you try to replace a bad, old habit with a good, new one, make sure the new one isn't too unpleasant. If you try to replace ice cream before bed with cod liver oil, you're probably doomed to fail. And if you can't choose wisely, just choose. The more you can remember that you DO have choices, the easier it will make it. Can't envision yourself doing 60-minutes on a treadmill? How about choosing to do 40? How about choosing to do 25? How about choosing to just standing on the thing for 5 minutes and calling that a good first step? Choosing consciously, and purposefully, goes a looooooooong way in the right direction.]
  4. Get down to specifics. [Sometimes you can identify triggers that are most likely to bring out your bad habit. These can involve people, locations or preceding actions. Maybe it's safe for you to go into shoe stores to look around -- just don't do it with the friend who's dying to buy a pair, but only if you do too. Understanding -- or at least recognizing -- what triggers you is very important. (Think emotional eating, as example.) Whenever triggered, try and identify "what just happened" BEFORE doing anything else. In other words, is it that you really NEED that Frappuccino or is it more a reaction from your boss stressing you out?]
  5. Practice. Practice. Practice. [Suppose you want to stop gossiping. You practice not gossiping at work with friend X, and you get very good at it. Then one day you go shopping with X. Watch out! You're at risk for a relapse. Plus -- if you break your gossip habit at work with X, you may still keep gossiping with W, Y and Z. A habit can be associated with different places, people and activities. If you're trying to break one, practice in as many situations as you can. The opposite of this is true, too: Just because you can't break your bad habit in ALL situations, it doesn't mean that you're not making progress. Keep in mind that relapses are actually a sign of moving forward -- we backslide FROM a better state.]
  6. Use cues and rewards. [Maybe you want to save money for a trip to Hawaii, but you have an unfortunate habit of maxing out your credit cards. Try taping a picture of Waikiki Beach to your billfold to remind yourself not to splurge on non-necessities. Again, the opposite can work, here, too: Try taping a picture of something that you want to get away from for a while -- your office building, a local restaurant that you hate, a neighbors too-fancy car, etc.]
  7. Show how highly evolved you are. [Suppose you procrastinate whenever you ought to be doing something you don't want to do. Procrastination provides instant gratification, and even though you will pay, that doesn't come till later. Remind yourself of the future cost when you're tempted to work on your tan instead of doing the housework. I laugh at how long it takes me, sometimes, to get on with something. One, day, as example, it took me a full 12-hours to get myself to do it. But that provided considerable motivation for me the next time as I chose to just do it right away rather than torment myself with "not doing it yet" from sun up to sundown. I felt particularly evolved that second day! In other words, the less drama, the better.]

Point Last: Habit changing won't work if you conceive of it like holding your breath -- you really DO have to breathe through it. So relax, get conscious and purposeful about it, and know that they'll likely be some twists and turns in the the road ahead that will challenge your commitment to the changes you're attempting.

And if all else fails: Begin anew.

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Anonymous farouk says...

thanks for the info :)

July 4, 2009 7:01 AM  
Anonymous Andrea says...

I especially like number 2 and find that doing something active is a great way to replace old habits.

October 9, 2009 7:16 PM  
Blogger Barry Zweibel says...

Farouk ~ You're quite welcome.

Andrea ~ I think number 2 is *my* favorite,as well. Thanks.

October 19, 2009 7:19 PM  

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