Breaking bad habits

March 2, 2007

Personal Best

Problem is, the cold turkey, muster-your-willpower approach often collapses after a brief stint. Unlearning a habit that you've been practicing for 10 or 20 years demands effort and vigilance. Habits are behaviors you've repeated so often, you now do them on autopilot. They've become part of your comfortable routine, and they often help you alleviate stress.

In some ways, habits are "addictions lite." The latter have a chemically-addictive component (i.e., drugs or alcohol), have a stronger compulsion element, and can cause major life problems. While many scientists say there's a genetic predisposition to some addictions, most also believe that whatever the origin, you can still overcome them.

Develop your motivation. Ever say "I'll stop when I get motivated" or "I don't quit smoking because I don't really want to." That's not surprising. No one inherently wants to give up a comfortable, pleasurable activity. You need to motivate yourself by creating an inviting, attractive goal and focusing on the rewards of achieving it.

Visualize the rewards that come with breaking your habit-whether it's having more energy, looking better, getting admiring looks, or feeling proud of yourself. Take some quiet time to picture those images in such detail that they become clear and visceral-in your gut, not just your mind. Actively call them into your consciousness and dwell on them throughout the day. Create reminders that evoke the new image of yourself living without this behavior.

In addition, picture yourself in a situation where you'd normally act a certain way out of habit, and mentally rehearse acting differently. Mental rehearsal is powerful and it works; people have even reported being able to improve their golf stroke through mental practice. The same holds true with breaking a bad habit.

Track your habit. Yes, recording your actions is annoying, but it's also a critical step toward helping you change. Keep a log of every time you smoke, have too much coffee, overeat, or indulge in your habit. Note the situations that have become linked with your habit (i.e., a cigarette every night after dinner), your feelings at the time, and anything that triggered your behavior. After a week or so, identify recurring situations.

Choose one situation to tackle first. If you pick them off one at a time, you're more likely to make changes without feeling completely deprived. The all-or-nothing approach seems so restrictive to some people, they won't even try. One alcohol abuser who rejected the Alcoholics Anonymous' abstinence edict said, "I can't even have a glass of champagne at my daughter's wedding? Forget it!"

Several weight loss programs and habit-breaking regimens build in allowances for an occasional indulgence, known as the "harm-reduction" approach. If the specter of deprivation has kept you from breaking your habit, try the "at least I'm doing it less often" philosophy.

Caveat: Most experts agree that drug or alcohol abuse doesn't lend itself to a harm-reduction approach. If you're abusing drugs, you need to eliminate them.