Browsing the archives for the changing behavior tag.
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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 to Stop in Mid-Fail

States of mind

When we make bad decisions, where’s the real point of no return?

Let’s say Meg decides she really want to go to Sweden, and she plans an incredible 3-week vacation there: great hotels, tours, plane tickets, the whole shebang. As she’s making these reservations, she thinks to herself “I probably can’t afford this–but I’ve always wanted to go to Sweden, and who knows when I’ll have the chance next?” Everything’s set. Once the reservations are made, is it too late for her to change her mind?

Two weeks before the trip she looks briefly at her finances and begins to worry about what will happen to her credit card debt if she goes. Is she really going to be able to pay all that money off? It turns out she doesn’t have it in savings, as she was kind of hoping she would. Now is it too late?

The day before she leaves, the anxiety is too much for her, and she sits down and runs the numbers. It turns out that the trip isn’t just a little out of her reach: it’s going to cause havoc to her whole budget–she might even run out of money while on the trip! And she hadn’t realized the hotel was going to cost that much, and should she really have booked the more expensive flight so that she didn’t have to leave at 5:30 in the morning? Is it too late now?

It may feel too late. When you’re driving away from the fast food restaurant or about to drop that angry letter in the mailbox or standing at the counter while the sales clerk rings up your purchases, it may feel as though you’re committed to the bad choice you’ve made, even if you now realize it’s a bad choice. For some of us (and this is completely typical of the old eating habits I’ve been painstakingly overcoming for years), you may be halfway through eating something, realize you’re not enjoying it at all, and still finish it because oh well, you already bought it and started eating it, and you don’t want it to go to waste, right? Because making you unhappy and contributing to your ill health is much less going to waste than throwing it away … uh, right?

Yet it’s never actually too late until it’s literally impossible to take whatever it is back. Even if it would take a lot of effort to backtrack, or if you lose money by changing your plans, or if you have to do something that seems random and embarrasses you, it’s better to reverse a bad choice at the last minute than to never reverse it at all. The day before Meg’s trip, she can say to herself “This is ridiculous: I can’t afford this, and I won’t even be able to enjoy the trip because I’ll be worrying about money the whole time.” Then she can call the airline and see if she can get a refund or credit for the flight, call the hotels and tours and cancel her reservations, and so on. If she’s past the deadline for getting much money back from the trip–for instance, if she got non-refundable plane tickets and the airline won’t give her credit toward future travel–then maybe it is too late, but if she just has to take a hit of a few hundred dollars instead of spending thousands she doesn’t have, then canceling (or scaling back to much cheaper arrangements) is still the right decision for her.

On the surface, this kind of reversal looks stupid: you go to a lot of trouble to arrange something, then you go to a lot of trouble to cancel it, and lose money in the bargain. The important thing to realize is that the value Meg was trying to get at the beginning was an illusion: the trip was not really something she wanted on those terms. If she took it, she would be less happy and less empowered than if she didn’t. Once she realized this, the value of the trip as she understood it changed. It’s as though you made arrangements to buy a nice car and then found out the car was a lemon. Would you still buy the car (and for the same amount) just because it seemed like it was worth more before you knew better?

There are two benefits to reversing a bad decision even after the bad decision has already cost you something. The first is that the bad decision hurts you less if you don’t follow all the way through with it. The second is that you give yourself a memorable and meaningful lesson. The canceled trip will, we hope, really stick in Meg’s memory, so that the next time she tries to buy something that she can’t afford, she can reflect on it and say “Remember when I almost bankrupted myself on that trip to Sweden I wanted? This is like that. Why don’t I steer clear this time?”

Is it ever too late to get a little smarter?

Photo by tricky

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