January 10, 2008
Dr. Phil Advisory Board member Arthur B. Markman provides strategies for breaking habits and replacing them with good ones.
Dr. Art Markman’s Five Ways to Break a Bad Habit
1) Define Bad Habit and Commit to Change
2) Disrupt the Habit
3) Create Habit Diary
4) Replace Bad Habit with Smart Habit
5) Reward Yourself
In the past couple of columns, I have been talking about habits. First, I discussed why we have habits in the first place. Then, I wrote about one difficulty with breaking habits: that it can be difficult to recognize when you are doing your bad habit. In this column, I’ll talk about how the world around you affects your habits and ways you can deal with that.
One thing that psychologists have begun to understand is that a lot of our everyday behavior is caused by circumstances in the world. Think about these common habits (that are usually good behaviors)
Your bad habits are often related to specific situations as well.
Why do habits repeat in this way? This behavior has the same cause as your good habits. Your habit learning system is trying to find things that you do all the time and learn to do them automatically so that you don’t have to think about them. That means that your habit system will suggest a behavior whenever the right situation happens. The right situation is the one where that behavior has been done in the past. Your habit learning system doesn’t know which behaviors you think are good ones and which ones you think are bad ones. It only knows that in a particular situation, you usually perform the same action, and so when you get into that situation again, it suggests that action again.
An obvious way to help yourself break a bad habit, then, is to avoid the situations in which you usually do your bad habit. This suggestion is commonly given. For example, one of things that people who join Alcoholics Anonymous are told is that they should avoid the people and places where they used to drink. The reason that this suggestion is effective is because it is nearly impossible for an alcoholic to avoid drinking when they are in a situation where they used to drink. The habit learning system gives too strong a suggestion to drink for the person to overcome.
Notice that this suggestion involves avoiding both the people and the places where you carried out a bad habit. People are an important part of our environment, and they have a huge influence on our behavior. Recently, there was research showing that if your friends are overweight, then chances are you will be overweight as well. Why does that happen? Partly, it happens, because our habit learning system may associate certain people with certain kinds of eating habits. In addition, we support the behaviors of our friends and family in different ways. For example, I often find that it is difficult to make the time to exercise. My wife and I both think that exercise is important, but exercise is also time-consuming. Because it is a priority for us, we each give the other time to go exercise by taking care of the kids or doing things around the house for each other. This kind of social support is incredibly important for breaking bad habits and also for continuing with good behaviors.
Finally, remember that overcoming a bad habit takes time. It probably took a while to develop the bad habit, you shouldn't think that it will go away quickly. Each time that you are in a situation where you used to do your bad habit and you don't do it, you are one step closer to breaking the habit. You might slip every once in a while and do the behavior you are trying to change. Those slips are normal. Do not beat yourself up about them. Just work at making the good behaviors happen more often than the bad ones. The more this happens, the weaker the bad habit will get over time. After all, your goal in the end is not to successfully fight your bad habit, but instead to create good habits so that you do not have to think about the behavior any more at all.
©2007 Arthur B. Markman, All rights reserved