Bad Habits and Your World

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

  • Before you can change anything, you need to identify the habit you want changed 
  • You can't change anything unless you are ready AND committed to do so

2) Disrupt the Habit

  • Block habits by disrupting the specific actions that make up the habit
  • Stop habit from becoming mindless; force yourself to have to think about habit 
  • Sometimes you can change environment

3) Create Habit Diary

  • Identify triggers (elements in life that support current habit)
  • Make note of date, time of day, your mood, where you were, what you were thinking 
  • Identify patterns
  • This allows you to learn about yourself

4) Replace Bad Habit with Smart Habit

  • Replace something with something
  • Must create a goal

5) Reward Yourself

  • Provide self with positive feedback

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)

  • When your phone rings, you naturally go to answer it.
  • When you approach a red traffic light, you brake your car. 
  • When you go to the store to buy detergent, you usually buy the same brand every time.

Your bad habits are often related to specific situations as well.

  • You might eat well at home, but order a large burger and fries at a restaurant.
  • You might drink too much when you spend time with particular friends. 
  • You might find that you smoke a cigarette whenever you get home in the evening.
  • You might bite your nails when you sit at your desk at home.

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.

So, when you try to break a habit, it can be useful to avoid situations where you used to carry out that behavior. Not all situations can be avoided, though. If you often smoke at work, then you cannot stop working just so that you can quit smoking. If you bite your nails in bed, you can't stop going to sleep. What can you do when you can't avoid the situations where you often carry out your bad habits?

There are two key things you can do to help yourself when you cannot change the environment. First, the reason why habits are hard to break is that the environment is suggesting a particular behavior you should carry out. Often, when you try to break a habit, you try to replace a behavior (say, biting your nails) with no behavior (not biting your nails). It is hard to learn to do nothing.

Instead, you should try to replace your behavior with something else. If you are trying to quit biting your nails, try another behavior instead. If you bite your nails in bed, then try doing something else that will keep your hands busy when you get ready to go to sleep. For example, you could give yourself a manicure before bed, or maybe do a crossword puzzle before going to sleep. Eventually, you will start to learn to link a new behavior to the old cues. That is, by replacing your bad behavior with a good one, you will eventually create a good habit where there was only a bad one before.

Second, enlist your friends to help you change your behavior as much as possible. Often, when we want to change a bad habit, we don't really tell anyone about it. We might be afraid to admit that we have a bad habit. We might be concerned that if people knew we were trying to change our behavior, they might think less of us if we fail.

Think about what a powerful influence other people are on our behavior. There are many behaviors you might be willing to do when you are alone, but not when you are with others. So bring other people along with you in situations where you usually do your bad habit. Even when you can't have those other people with you all the time, have people that you can call to talk to if you feel yourself drawn to your bad habit. 

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

Around the Web