Browsing the archives for the bad habits tag.
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Habit Change: Identifying the Cue


Recently I posted about Charles Duhigg’s excellent book The Power of Habit, in which he talks about habits in individuals, companies, and cultures. I mentioned that toward the end of the book he gives a concise method for changing specific habits, using the example of his own habit (which as of the writing of the book he seemed to have entirely kicked) of getting a chocolate chip cookie in the mid afternoon every workday.

The habit process he describes, which seems to be backed up quite well by psychological reseach, has three parts: the cue, the routine, and the reward. The part we think about changing when we tend to think about kicking a bad habit or acquiring a good one is the routine: the action we take. In order to change the routine–or even in order to figure out what to change the routine to–it’s first necessary to identify the cue and the reward.

The cue can be practically anything, but Duhigg mentions that researchers have found it generally falls into one of the following categories. This is convenient: these categories give us obvious questions to ask ourselves when trying to identify our habit cues.

The categories are

  • place
  • time
  • people
  • emotional state
  • preceding action

For instance, if I have a habit of watching TV late into the night (which fortunately I don’t); it might be because I’m at home and that’s what I’m used to doing when I’m at home (place), because it’s 8:00 and I’m used to turning on the TV then (time); because I’m with my roommate, who likes a lot of the same TV shows I do (people); because I’m feeling anxious and want to be distracted (emotional state); or because I’ve just finished cleaning up from dinner and like to take a break after doing that (preceding action).

Sometimes it’s probably not quite that simple, as when a mix of cues are at work (for instance, I have to be at home and it has to be a certain time and I have to feel a certain way), but this approach is useful even if we’re breaking down a more complex habit.

To identify the cue, Duhigg proposes jotting down answers to each of those five questions every time you find yourself acting out your habit.

  • Where am I?
  • What time is it?
  • Who’s nearby?
  • What’s my emotional state?
  • What did I just finish doing?

Taking note of those five things, on paper, for (say) five or ten executions of the habit will often be enough to shed light on exactly what’s starting your habit process rolling.

Of course, you might recognize your cue just by thinking about your habit for a few moments. For instance, if the habit you’re trying to break is stopping at a particular bar every day on your way home from work, it’s likely that your cue is driving past that bar–a place cue.

Cues are also helpful for creating new habits. For example, I had trouble getting in the habit of flossing my teeth regularly when I first tried, because I would try to fit it in whenever I had time available, morning or evening. There was no clear and unique cue to use.

When I then tried adding it in the morning, I wasn’t successful because I’m often on a tight schedule in the morning, and I wasn’t willing to make myself late by adding flossing when I hadn’t planned time for it in advance.

The point at which I did become successful with that habit was when I started doing it at night, just before brushing my teeth. My cue was standing at the sink and looking over at my toothbrush in the evening, a combination of time, place, and attention. Even though focus or attention isn’t one of the five most common cue types Duhigg names, speaking from my own experience, it certainly seems to play a part in some of my habits.

Once the cue has been identified, there’s still the issue of figuring out a routine–either a changed one to preempt the habit you’re trying to break or a new one to lay the pattern for the habit you want to gain. I’ll talk more about the routine and the reward here in the near future.

If you’re working on ditching a bad habit or adding a good habit, I’d love to hear from you, whether privately (look for the contact form on the right) or through comments here, both to know about what you’re trying and to learn from your results.

photo by Vicious Bits

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Breaking Bad Habits by Changing Cues


Here’s an article with some useful points about breaking bad habits, based on the results of studies by psychologists at the University of Southern California: “Obesity and Overeating: How to Break a Bad Habit.” The key points here are 1) that negative behaviors are sometimes driven more by habit than by short-term pleasure, and 2) that changing minor environmental factors can help break bad habits. While there are many situations where these particular concerns don’t apply, they point to some easy and potentially effective methods of breaking bad habits in situations where they do.

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How to Break a Bad Habit


Bunnies that are bad to the bone

In a recent article, I wrote about whether good habits make bad habits go away. The verdict was that they can sometimes, but only if they directly conflict with a bad habit. If the bad habit can coexist with the good habit, the good habit alone won’t be enough to get rid of the bad one. For example, if a newer Taekwondo student learns to bring the knee far up before kicking (a good habit), that won’t prevent bending the head forward (a bad habit) with every kick.

How bad habits are defeated
Fortunately, knowing how good habits and bad habits interact tells us what we need to do to get rid of bad habits. Unfortunately, it takes some work. But this isn’t any worse than what we already knew: if changing habits were easy, you and I wouldn’t have any trouble with it, and this kind of article wouldn’t be necessary.

The essential problem with getting rid of a bad habit is that our brains don’t seem to have any mechanism for not doing things except to do something else. That kind of makes sense when we look at it carefully, for instance by comparison with the way our bodies work. We don’t have muscles in our body for “not lying down”–but we do have muscles that can pull us into a standing or sitting position. The only way we have to not lie down is to do something other than lying down.

To put it another way, focusing on “not” doing something won’t get us anywhere: we have to instead focus our efforts on doing something else that prevents the behavior we don’t want. If a person has a problem with shouting when they’re upset, the job isn’t to “not shout” but rather to find something else that will interfere with the shouting, like speaking very softly or counting to ten. As simple as these kinds of strategies are, they prevent us from doing the thing we don’t want to do, and as specific behaviors they can eventually turn into good or neutral habits that can quash the habits we want to get rid of.

Consistently doing something else
The problem, then, is in getting us to consistently do the good habits. Just doing them every once in a while isn’t going to change anything: as I talk about in How Long Does It Take to Form a Habit?, research suggests that we have to do something very consistently over many days in order to turn it into a habit. In order for replacement behaviors to work, they have to be available to us all the time, and we have to focus on them carefully. And habits being habits, our bad habits are often going to be easier to follow than the replacement behaviors we want to use: sometimes a person will find it hard to count to ten instead of shouting if he’s used to shouting.

There are two ways to help skew things in favor of the replacement behaviors. In an article about how habits and goals relate to each other, Wendy Wood and David T. Neal of Duke University talk about the ways automatic behaviors kick in. One is direct, when a person responds to the sight of a Dunkin Donuts store by going in and buying a cruller because they’re used to buying a cruller when they pass Dunkin Donuts. The other is based on expected rewards, when a person imagines how pleasant it would be to eat a cruller and goes to Dunkin Donuts to get one out of desire for that sensation.

Focusing on the near-term payoff
So we can use expected rewards to help fight bad habits. If someone gets a little thrill of accomplishment by purposely walking by a Dunkin Donuts instead of going in, then that focusing attention on that thrill can activate the “expected rewards” system and reinforce the new behavior we want. Finding the right reward is the hardest thing about this technique. The reward has to be real (a gold star in a notebook isn’t going to be motivating unless you really love gold stars), something that you can consistently get, and to not start other bad habits. For instance, a student who rewards herself with a chocolate bar every time she sits down to study may acquire a good study habit at the same time as a bad chocolate-snarfing habit.

This is why, as discussed in this post, women who concentrated on the immediate feelings of well-being they got from a workout were better at keeping at an exercise habit than women who concentrated on their long-term goals. Long-term goals are important in their place, but in themselves they provide very little motivation: they need to be aided by tools like visualization.

Skipping bad behavior through visualization
The second way to shore up anti-bad behavior is though picturing a different behavior, because it appears that we are much more likely to perform behaviors that we picture mentally; William James called this “ideomotor” behavior. For example, a short time ago I was unexpectedly hungry, and it wasn’t time to eat yet. Not wanting to lend any strength to a past habit of eating between meals, I instead pictured myself sitting down and writing this post, which I started doing, and which has kept my attention long enough to get past the problem.

Photo by turbojoe (away)


How About a Little Later? Would a Little Later Work?

Strategies and goals

Breaking habits isn’t easy: it takes a lot of disruption to make a behavior we’re used to stop coming out automatically. Changing a behavior means coming up with many ways over time to stop ourselves from doing what comes naturally, by habit. For this purpose, the more tactics we have available to disrupt those undesired habits, the better–and one of those tactics, strangely enough, is a bit like procrastination. You could also call it “delayed gratification,” but regardless, the technique is to push things off a little further in time. For instance, if a person is hard at work at a home business and is tempted to stop working for a while to check Facebook, something they’re trying not to do doing working hours, one option is to say “How about I check Facebook a little later?” Chances are the idea of checking Facebook came up during a particularly boring or unappealing moment in work, and if things get more interesting as the work progresses, then not checking Facebook might be easier when the promised time comes than it was when it was first put off.

And if it isn’t easier to avoid when the delayed time comes, it can often be put off again. Enough delaying, and it might not happen at all, or else be saved to an appropriate moment–just as with someone who’s trying to stick to a healthier eating pattern putting off a snack until it’s meal time, when the snack is no longer necessary.

This is not a very sophisticated or especially powerful technique, but like the Just Don’t It technique, it can be pulled out at odd moments to interfere with a bad habit a person is trying to break. Even if ultimately the delays don’t prevent the undesired behavior, at least there has been some interruption of the normal state of things, which is an accomplishment and a bit of progress. And at their best, delaying tactics can be one of a set of tools that together can be employed to completely extinguish an undesired habit over time.

Photo by Stuart`Dootson

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Will a Good Habit Stop a Bad Habit?

Strategies and goals

Since I started getting serious about fitness, there have been two kinds of health habits I’ve been trying to change and improve, and they’re the same two that we hear all the time when people talk about weight loss: eating and exercise. I can tell you from experience that eating well and exercising regularly work, if they’re done the right way. What I haven’t understood until now is why picking up the exercise habit was so much easier than changing my eating habits.

In both cases, I’m trying to strengthen good habits (getting regular exercises, choosing healthy foods to eat), but only in the case of eating am I also trying to quash bad habits (eating the wrong foods or too much of the right foods).

When I started exercising, I got into good habits within a few months, habits that have improved slowly over time ever since. Eating, however, has been another story. In terms of good eating habits, I’ve been building those much like my exercise habits. Some of the lunches I’ve been eating are so filling yet light and nutritious, they’d make you weep. Well, maybe not you, but certainly someone with a sentimental streak for healthy lunches.

My bad eating habits, though, haven’t been going away at the same rate as my good eating habits have been coming in. Sure, they’ve been diminishing over time, but if the good habits had had anything to say about it, the bad habits would have been beaten to an unrecognizable pulp years ago. So what’s going on here?

Research to the rescue: A study by psychologists Bas Verplanken and Suzanne Faes gives evidence that forming a good habit to reach a goal doesn’t necessarily do anything to get rid of bad habits that might get in the way of that same goal. Verplanken and Faes make sense of this with the idea of “implementation intentions”–plans to do something specific in a specific kind of situation. This research seems to show that implementation intentions (like “prepare a healthy lunch in the morning and bring it in to work instead of buying something”) are much more useful for forming habits than general goals (like “eat a healthy lunch”). When you think about it, this makes sense: building habits is about doing something over and over again. If a person hasn’t decided exactly what to do exactly when, there’s a lot more in the way of the behavior that person is trying to repeat.

Implementation intentions, though, only cover specific circumstances and specific behaviors. So my nifty ideas for lunch can certainly help me choose a healthy lunch over an unhealthy lunch–but those same ideas will have little or no effect on whether I decide to buy some kind of high-calorie food to munch on an hour later.

The upshot seems to be that good habits can help destroy bad habits only if there’s no way for both habits to happen together. Bad habits can be overcome, and there are many tools on this site that offer ways to overcome them, but to make the best progress on that front, it becomes important for us to separate out the specific habits we’re trying to change or acquire, good and bad, so that we know which bad habits need to be tackled directly and which we can depend on good habits to crush.

Photo by Helico

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