Browsing the archives for the behavior tag.
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Habit Change: Routine and Reward


Recently I posted about a habit change process detailed by Charles Duhigg in his book The Power of Habit, and I began by talking about how to identify cues–the things that trigger us to act out our habits. Today’s post digs into the reward, the intended result of a habit. Identifying our rewards is essential if you’re going to use this cue-routine-reward approach for habit change.

What’s so important about identifying the reward? Well, the reward is the entire reason the old habit came into existence. According to Duhigg, habits arise because of a want or need, and if we can fulfill that want or need some other way, we’re well on our way to replacing the habit.

Your mileage may vary
I’ll jump in here for a moment to mention that habits can become ingrained because of expected rewards and then stay in place long after those rewards have disappeared, so I’m not convinced that every habit is subject to the kind of change Duhigg describes. With that said, there appears to be good evidence that many habits can be altered this way, and if you can identify that a habit in your life that still delivers its reward, the approach Duhigg talks about may work well for you if you want to change that habit.

Discovering your reward
Rewards are not always obvious. Duhigg gives an example of a habit he had of going down to the cafeteria at his workplace every afternoon to buy a chocolate chip cookie. His reward, he discovered over time, was not the sugar rush or anything else having to do with the actual cookie, but rather the socialization that usually took place when he went down to the cafeteria. He eventually changed his routine to be seeking out people to socialize with for a short time or going down to the cafeteria for a cup of tea. This gave him the reward he needed (some time to chat with other people and recharge his mental batteries) with no cookies required, and he used that new routine to overwrite the old one and therefore to lay off the cookies.

Duhigg suggests guessing at what kinds of rewards a habit might be providing and experimenting with getting those rewards in other ways. For instance, if I had a habit of staying up too late at night by starting some kind of entertainment around 10pm, I might theorize that the entertainment distracted me from the cares of the day and allowed me to relax, or that it provided some alone time that I wasn’t getting while everyone else was up, or that it supplied me with topics of conversation to draw on the next day.

Experimenting with new routines
To experiment with the relaxation theory, I could swap two hours of TV watching or game playing for 30 minutes of meditation, or for a relaxation CD that I could play while going to sleep. If I wanted to see if the alone time theory might be the real reason for the habit, I could try going to bed at a reasonable time but getting up earlier than everyone else in the morning, or else exercising at night rather than looking for some kind of entertainment. To test the theory that I might just need topics of conversation, I could set up blog and news feeds that interested me in a news reader program and spend twenty minutes a night reading whatever interested me the most.

The ultimate question for any of these experiments would be whether or not I lost the desire to stay up late.

Overlaying the old with the new
Finding another way to get a habit loop’s reward undermines the old habit and the old way of getting that reward. This doesn’t mean that the old habit will go away automatically: after all, our brains build and strengthen neural connections to support each of our habits and make them easier and more automatic. If we don’t make a conscious decision to do something else, the old habit will usually take over again the first chance it gets. However, finding a different means to get the same reward lets us decommission the old neural connections and start taking over with new ones based on recognizing the same cue and then performing a different routine–the new routine we’ve found through experimenting–to get the same reward.

Photo by gsbrown99

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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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The Little Lying Creep That Lives in My Head

States of mind

I used to have excuses: I wasn’t as clear on what would make me happy, on the difference between happiness and pleasure, or even on whether or not happiness was what was really important. Even when I understood what the best things were to do, in the past I often couldn’t figure out how to care and act on that.

Past excuses
These days I don’t have those excuses. I understand how central happiness is and how it’s different than pleasure. From researching and writing about habits over the past years, I have so many available ways to get and stay on track, it’s not so much a bag of tricks as a chase van full of them. I have a clear sense of how to be a deeply fulfilled, effective, and compassionate person.

So why aren’t I doing a better job? Sure, I’m doing pretty well, but why aren’t I closer to, you know, perfect?

It’s true that knowing isn’t enough, but if we understand the process of bridging the gap between knowing and doing (see the link for details), that’s not much of an excuse. No, I think what gets in my way those times that I could do the better thing and end up doing the worse thing, is the little lying creep that lives in my head.

I’ll call him “the Creep” for short.

Meet the Creep
Let’s say I come across a plate of doughnuts. I might say to myself,  “Yeah, those doughnuts look good, but you know what would make me feel better and happier? A round of push-ups.”

The Creep will respond “You know what would actually make you feel better? A freakin’ doughnut, that’s what. Push-ups don’t make you happier than doughnuts do. Push-ups just make you a joyless, self-righteous exercise junky. Doughnuts make you somebody who’s eating a delicious doughnut.”

Or I’ll have an hour or two available and think, “Why don’t I spend this time going over my task list and reorganizing items into updated categories so that I have a better handle on what I need to get done over the next couple of days?”

The Creep will respond “Or you could not do something stupid and boring and instead install World of Warcraft. Then you could spend the next six months playing that. Come on, it would be fun!”

I am pleased to say that these days, the Creep usually loses. I’ve been waging a long and exhausting battle against him over the course of years, learning to be more reliable, more productive, more self-aware, kinder, and a lot else.

Yet he’s still a major daily obstacle. I know he’s a big fat liar, but he’s so convincing. He emerged when I was very young, and I’m used to following his instructions.

Sometimes he’s even partly right. “Wow, this doughnut is good,” I might say, and he’ll say “I know, right? Now let’s get you some kind of candy to go with that.”

Later I’ll point out how the Creep’s advice has created problems or squandered opportunities, but he’ll be unavailable for comment.

Keep on Creepin’ on
These days, I try not to fall into the trap of fighting the creep. You can’t win an argument with him: he keeps coming up with more “common wisdom,” more “obvious truths,” and more justifications. “But you’re tired,” he’ll insist. “And you had that thing with the water spraying all over you, which wasn’t fair and was annoying, and anyway who are you trying to impress?”

Even if we get past all that, he doesn’t stop. “Yuh huh,” he’ll say. “Nuh uh,” I’ll point out. “Yuh huh,” he’ll rebut. He can go on like that all day … and sometimes has.

Still rummaging through the toolbox
So what’s the cure for the common Creep? I don’t have a single, easy answer: now that I’ve identified him, I have to see what mental tools I can use to get him to settle down. I take heart that I’ve been making headway, that he’s become a weaker and weaker influence over time.

I’m also interested in this idea of the Creep as a character or a mode in my head. This connects well with the schema therapy concept of modes, nine different roles that people take on mentally, for example the Healthy Adult and the Impulsive/Undisciplined Child.

Seeing the Creep as a mode or role, as soon as I identify him as being the one behind an idea in my head, my perspective shifts. I can say to myself “Well of course the Creep wants to do that. But what does the part of myself who actually has a clue think?”

Actually, I didn’t even realize that the Creep was a mode until I started writing about him here, and with that realization I suddenly have access to the Schema Therapy tools that apply to modes–dialog between modes, for instance, where the healthy part of me asks the Creep what’s going on.

Creeps wanted
What about you? Do your worst impulses have a personality? What tricks does that character have up its sleeve? Got a name for it? I’d be interested to hear your stories.


What’s the Essential Job of Parenting?


Recently Janine and I attended a series of six weekly classes (with substantial homework assignments) taught by parenting advisor Vicki Hoefle. Our children are wonderful, but we were running into problems like computer overuse with our teenager and getting our two grade school children out the door on time. Before we knew anything about Vicki’s work, I would have expected some helpful tips, useful insights, and gentle tweaks to our parenting. What I wouldn’t have expected was to hear–and quickly come to believe–that I’d been basically doing it wrong … and that I was not alone.

Wait, but I’m a good parent!
It’s very difficult for me, and I think for a lot of parents I know, to consider the possibility that we could be screwing up on a basic level. Sure, no parent is perfect. Ideas like “Ah, I should have been more involved here” or “In future, I’d better limit that” are perfectly comfortable for me. What’s not comfortable is to have to grapple with the idea that although I view parenting as one of the most important things I could do with my life, and although I’ve put great thought and effort into being a good parent, I was misunderstanding something as basic as what my job as a parent was.

This isn’t to say I haven’t been a good parent. I love my kids, and I make sure they know it. I go out of my way to spend time with them, to support them, and to listen to them. I help make sure they have good food, a stable home, fun, safety, and good schools. I try to guide and advise them to help them become better and more capable people. Isn’t that enough?

In a way, sure: my kids are great. At the same time, it’s not exactly on the mark: there’s an important understanding I (and virtually every other parent I know) had missed. That understanding is about who should be in charge. It’s not the parents: it’s the kids.

Parenting isn’t about telling our kids what to do
What’s the essential job of parenting? If you had asked a few months ago, I would have said something like “To love, support, teach, protect, and provide for our kids.” I also would have thought it was a pretty great answer. So where does it fall short?

To answer that question, I have to think about the thing that Vicki pointed out to us at the very first class: when they’re 18 or thereabouts, in most cases, our kids will be going out on their own. As of that moment, we will no longer be able to do things for them, teach them much of anything, or protect them from the world. By the time our kids leave home, they will need to know how to do everything we currently do for them and everything we expect them to do for themselves, as well as a bunch of things that we adults already do for ourselves and they will have never had to do before.

They have 18 years to learn everything. Go.
The list of things to know includes how to do laundry, how to cook, how to choose healthy foods, how to eat at regular times, how to get enough sleep, how to get up on time, how to be reliable, how to solve problems without anyone else’s help, how to act in a crisis, how to spend money, how not to spend too much money, how to earn money, how to save money, how to make and keep friends, how to resolve arguments and disputes, how to drive, how to navigate, how to keep a home clean even if you’re very busy, how to limit games and television so that they don’t get in the way of things like school and work, how to tell whether or not other people are trustworthy, how to deal with unexpected setbacks … and on and on and on. The complete list is probably too long to even fully imagine.

As competent adults, we know how to do a huge number of things, a lot of which we never even let our children try, sometimes because we don’t think they can do it and sometimes because it’s our job to do. (Do you let your children pay the gas bill without oversight? Hire their own lawyers? Take themselves to the hospital? I don’t either, although there are ways for them to learn how to do all these things without having to be abandoned by us.) As a result, young adults out on their own often make huge blunders with money, love, cleanliness, health, school, work, friendships, and in other areas. Sometimes they find their way through and eventually get good at these things. Other times they find an unhealthy status quo, like staying away from other people because they’re too nervous about negotiating relationships, or bossing everyone around, or bingeing on doughnuts every Friday night, or avoiding getting a serious illness or injury checked out because they don’t know how they’ll pay the medical bill, or ruining their chances at a great job and getting stuck with a lousy one.

Some of basic principles I took away from Vicki’s classes were these: let children do everything they’re capable of; let them find their own way; and help them learn how to do the things they can’t yet do.

Not all there is to it
There’s much more to what I’ve recently learned about parenting, especially in terms of what problems with kids’ behavior are really about and how to respond in a way that addresses the real issue instead of just trying to fix the situation. I’ve had to let go of a lot of my previous assumptions about parenting, though the principles of love, involvement, and support have only been strengthened by this process. If I tried to explain everything our family has gone through in the past six weeks, you might not even believe me. I will say, though, that our family is much, much happier and more functional than I could have imagined we’d be. We still have a lot of work to do, but we’re making steady progress.

How can I say this in strong enough terms?
I’ll try to express this as effectively as I can: I don’t think I know a single family with children at home that does not need what Vicki is teaching. Not a single one. I know some outstanding parents, and I suspect those outstanding parents would get at least as much–if not more–out of learning from Vicki as the average person.

When I say “need what Vicki is teaching,” too, I mean that any time, effort, and expense put into this education will pay off many times what was invested.

Just so you know, I have no affiliation with Vicki’s operation and don’t get anything for talking her up. The reason I’m so enthusiastic about promoting her work is that I think it is desperately needed.

Vicki has begun speaking more widely just recently, as her youngest child (of five) has just left the nest. This is good news for people who, unlike Janine and me, do not live in Vermont and would not previously have had direct access to her. Even more usefully, she has a book, Duct Tape Parenting, coming out in August. (She already has a for-Kindle-only book out called Real Parents, Real Progress, but it’s more of an extended preview of what she’s offering than a real resource in itself. Actually, it’s perfect if you wonder if there might be something to what I’m saying but don’t really believe me that it can make an enormous difference in your life yet. Invest the five dollars in the book and see whether you agree it’s worth pursuing.)

I’d suggest that if you can think of anything important that you’d like to improve in your relationship with your children, whether it’s a problem kind of behavior or anything else, that it would be well worth your time to look into Vicki’s site or her books. I’m sure there are other people in the world who have as deep and useful an understanding of parenting as Vicki, but I’ve never run across any of them, and they’re not the parenting experts I’ve heard of before. Prove me wrong if you can that Vicki’s take on parenting is something we desperately need.

Photo by Bindaas Madhavi

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Microgoals, Red X’s, and Unbroken Chains


A post by Trent Hamm on the Christian Science Monitor site today offers a simple and promising approach to consistent success with one straightforward behavior: put up a calendar and make a mark for every day you successfully do that behavior.

There are some research-justified advantages to this approach. First, it brings the goal into awareness regularly, which is essential. Have you ever started on some new habit you wanted to acquire, then realized at a certain point that you had forgotten about it and stopped doing it? Then you know what I mean–and perhaps can see where a big, visual reminder could help.

Second, it emphasizes doing the thing daily, which is of key importance for habit formation (see “How Long Does It Take to Form a Habit?“). Behaviors that aren’t done daily only form habits after a long time, if ever. Daily behaviors are much more likely to form habits.

Third, it associates something positive with whatever it is you want to do, even if that positive thing is just extending a chain of red X’s on the calendar on your wall. Those red X’s can be a source of pride, satisfaction, and bragging rights, and thinking about those kinds of things is much more motivating than thinking about the reasons you don’t want to do whatever it is.

I should note that this approach seems useful only for very specific, easily judged behaviors. “Eat four servings of fruit a day” can work with this system. “Eat healthily” can’t unless you’ve defined very precisely what you mean by “healthily.” There has to be an easy way to say “Yes, I did that” or “No, I didn’t do that”–though some kind of rating system (zero to four gold stars for the day, for instance) might work out (though perhaps not as easily) for something that’s more flexible.

I also suspect that this would not be effective for multiple goals at once. Having multiple goals running would tend to create conflicting priorities. Still, it seems possible that in some cases having two or three chains of different colors going might be workable if you’ve got some attention to focus on the matter.

Once you’ve got your goal, your red pen, and your calendar (or whatever your system will be), then all you have to do is follow Jerry Seinfeld‘s advice and “Don’t break the chain.”

Photo by wdecora

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How to Make Habits Form More Quickly


While it always takes time for a habit to form, if we want to encourage one to take hold, here are some key things we can do:

  1. Do it more often. Each repetition of a behavior helps to strengthen the neural connections that can make that behavior automatic.
  2. Skip the excuses and exceptions. While nobody’s perfect, it’s important to keep in mind that any time we skip a day or decide to let things slide because of “special circumstances” sets things backward and delays the formation of a habit. (See “How Not to Make Excuses“)
  3. Plan in advance. Sometimes we don’t have a lot of attention to spare to think about a goal at the times when we need to make key choices. By planning ahead when we do have a few moments to think, we can have the right choices mapped out for us and increase our chances of making them.
  4. Think, visualize, discuss, daydream. The more time we put into thinking about our goals and imagining the payoffs, the easier it is to tap into motivation when we need it. Use a daily commute, time waiting for appointments, time in the shower, and even conversations with friends to spend more brain time on your goal.
  5. Simplify. The more we make our desired behaviors simple to manage, the more likely we are to be successful managing them. Use tools, regular events, well-thought-out systems, and repeatable behaviors to stay on track.
  6. Find the appeal. It’s much easier to keep to a course of action when it’s something we think of ourselves as enjoying instead of something we think of as a chore or limitation.  Focus as much as possible on the things that make a behavior appealing, and be willing to try to find some enjoyment even in circumstances you’re used to thinking of as unpleasant, like feeling hungry or getting organized.

Photo by Maia C

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Immediate Willpower?


I’ve often pictured a sudden mental transformation, fantasized that some particular idea would click into place and immediately, some behavior I’d been wanting to change for a long time would change without any further great effort required from me. Can willpower really work that way?

Generally speaking, the answer is no. Habits are ingrained over a long period of time: neural connections in our brains don’t change in large ways all of a sudden except in the case of brain damage. Habits reflect repeatedly strengthened neural connections–basically, we’ve done something over and over so much that it becomes hardly any effort to keep doing it.

There are exceptions, but they’re special cases. For instance, if I go to the doctor and find out that I will drop dead the next time I have a bite of ice cream (fortunately, not a very likely diagnosis), then I can pretty much guarantee you I will never have a bite of ice cream again. But these kinds of changes in behavior are fueled by drastic, unavoidable consequences based on clear-cut behaviors. Most goals don’t fit that description.

But even though we usually can’t experience immediate habit change, we can experience immediate behavior change. If we adopt tactics that help us be mindful of what we’re doing and that keep us in close touch with the consequences, we can see progress right away. While this isn’t the kind of dramatic change many of us would like, it does yield immediate benefits and lead to the end we have in mind, even as it gets easier and easier over time to repeat the good acts we’re learning.

Photo by Thomas Hawk


Mirror Neurons and Accomplishing by Watching

The human mind

Mirror neurons are a surprising, fairly recent neurological discovery: cells in the brain that fire both when an action is done and when we see someone else performing the action. In other words, part of what goes on in our brains when we throw a frisbee, for instance, also goes on when we see someone else throw a frisbee.

I’ve mentioned before how imagining doing a thing activates many of the same parts of a person’s brain as actually doing the thing, and that visualizing ourselves in an activity is a good way to move ourselves towards doing it. The existence of mirror neurons suggests that just seeing someone else do something can make us more disposed and able to do that thing ourselves.

If that’s true, then it would seem that one of the ways we can encourage ourselves to make progress on something we want to accomplish is to simply watch someone else doing it. If we want to exercise, presumably it may help to watch other people exercise. If we want to become good at approaching other people in social situations, there may be benefit in watching other people be outgoing.

There are other reasons in addition to mirror neurons that this kind of approach may be particularly useful. One is that watching someone do a thing increases the amount of attention we’re paying to that thing, and the more attention we pay to something, the more likely we are to do it. Another is that watching others do something helps prove that the thing can be done, as when we see a friend clean up an area quickly and efficiently that we might otherwise have guessed would be difficult and time-consuming to clean. Yet another reason to watch others do things we want to do is that we can learn practical information about the tasks involved. Talking with people who are losing weight, for instance, can provide helpful information about nutrition and available exercise options.

So if you’re having trouble getting together willpower for a particular goal, consider whether there might be a practical way for you to seek out and watch other people who are actually accomplishing that goal … then go find them and soak it in.

Photo by ljcybergal

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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 Not to Make Excuses

States of mind

An experiment in excuses
For most of my life I’ve been running an experiment between two categories of things in my life: the “excuses are OK” group and “no excuses” group. It’s only recently that I noticed I was running this experiment, though, and so the years and years of results are only now starting to come in handy.

Let me give some examples of choices that have been in each group. By the way, though I talk a lot about eating well in this post, the points about excuses and exceptions apply just as well to forming any other kind of habit.

“Excuses are OK” group

  • Eating foods that I’d be better off not eating
  • Going to bed at a reasonable hour
  • Keeping track of incoming mail

“No Excuses” group

  • Parenting
  • Vegetarianism (for the 22 years I decided to do that)
  • Going to work

So I might do well for a stretch at making good eating choices, then hit a day when I was traveling and didn’t have many options, so I’d say to myself “Oh well, it’s really hard to eat well on a day like today–I’ll just eat whatever.”

But on that same trip I would not say “Oh well, it’s really hard to eat vegetarian on a day like today–I’ll just get a hamburger.”

My results
Knowing what I know these days about self-motivation, it shouldn’t surprise me that the “no excuses” group of activities were much more successful than the “excuses OK” group. For instance, when I started making a rule of eating only at specific times of day, it became much easier to make better eating choices. I went 22 years without knowingly eating any red meat, seafood, or poultry–even that time back in my 20’s when I was out of money and extremely hungry while traveling and someone offered me a hamburger. By contrast, it’s rare that I’ve gone 22 days without overeating (though all the days I have eaten well count for something, as I eventually lost 60 pounds and have been in great shape for quite a while now).

To look at it another way, and in terms of a real experiment, one study on habit formation found that those participants who kept up the behavior they wanted to make into a habit with no more than one exception over the course of months were much more successful at forming durable habits than those who made two or more exceptions.

The secret of excuses and exceptions
The thing about excuses and exceptions is that if we’re trying to build habits, there’s no good reason for excuses short of total catastrophe. Any time we don’t stick with the behavior we’re trying to build up–that is, any time we make exceptions–we lose some of the habitual behavior we’re trying to build. There may be days when eating well is inconvenient, boring, or annoying, but if I use inconvenience, boredom, and annoyance as excuses, then they’ll wreck my attempts to build a habit over time.

That’s not to say that making one excuse is the end of the world, but it is true that taking excuses as a serious problem and not an acceptable norm will help us develop the habits we want to create.

Easier said than done–but possible!
“That’s really nice,” you might say, “but it doesn’t help me for you to just tell me to behave the way I’d like to all the time. Not behaving the way I want to is the problem in the first place!” And that would be a reasonable thing to mention. Fortunately, there is a practical takeaway here: excuses are red flags and should be treated as such. There’s no such thing as a good excuse when trying to build a habit, there are only catastrophic interruptions. If a friend of yours is in the hospital and you end up throwing your good eating habits out the window from stress and limited choices, that’s fine; it’s not the end of the world–but it is a catastrophic interruption, and it means you’re damaging a good habit you’re working on for something more important. But good friends are more important than good food, and that’s a reasonable choice if you really need to focus on your friend.

On the other hand, what if you just interrupt a good habit because you’re in a bad mood or happen to be in a restaurant that serves something you like? Many of us immediately reach for the excuse box.

But if we recognize excuses and exceptions as danger signs, we can stop ourselves and say “My goal here is to build a habit, not to come up with excuses to screw that up.” Using this kind of awareness, making rules, taking responsibility, surrendering excuses, and making use of any useful tactics we can learn (like this list of 24 Ways to Stop Feeling Hungry), we can move ourselves out of the “Excuses OK” group and into the group that’s really kicking experimental butt.

Photo by ariel.chico

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