All of us have acquired habits that we would like to change. Sometimes this involves decreasing or discontinuing a behavior, such as smoking, or nail biting. Habit change can also involve developing a healthy new routine, such as getting regular exercise, eating well, practicing stress management, and so forth.
Psychologists have known for some time that we pick up habits for what our brains see as good reasons. The reasons can be quite conscious, but many times we are not aware of when or why or how the habit has formed. Yet, our brains are very skilled at making neural links among 1.) a cue (aka, an event or trigger), 2.) performing a behavior or routine, and 3.) experiencing a subsequent “reward.” The behavior can result in something we want, such as feeling mellow or tasting something delicious, or involve the removal of something we don’t want, such as no longer feeling lonely or anxious or bored. Of course, many habits do both for us.
Regardless of whether we would consider a habit to be positive, negative, or neutral, our brains quickly recognize that a type of behavior (the habit) leads to a specific reward. We also very instinctively connect these rewards to particular triggers or cues that set this chain of events in motion. Triggers can be internal (e.g., feeling sad, angry, or anxious) or external (having a stressful interaction with a coworker).
Changing the Habit Chain
What follows are 5 important questions to ask yourself before you embark on a plan to change a habit. After answering these, read on for essential tips on how to successfully create positive change.
- What do I really want for myself? If you don’t know the answer to this question, you’re unlikely to come up with an effective plan of action.
- What would about my present life would I need to change? Be very clear and specific about what the new routine would ideally look like (e.g., “To quit smoking” is a more useful statement than “To be healthy,” because specific goals can be achieved with step-by-step plans).Will this require decreasing a current behavior? Stopping something altogether? Or starting something new?
- How willing am I to work to make change happen? Most worthwhile changes take some effort, so you must be at least partially willing to invest energy and time in order to be successful.
- How will I tolerate temporarily being in my (dis)comfort zone while I make change? Nearly everyone experiences ups and downs when making significant changes. Knowing how you will ride out tough times will help you see your plan through. (If you need suggestions, see the steps below.)
- Do I believe the benefit of changing is greater than the con of retiring an old “tool?” The research on making change tells us that for your efforts to be successful, you must believe that the pros of making the proposed change outweigh the cons of giving up or decreasing the use of an old way of coping.
Now that you have answered the above, follow the steps below and you will be well on your way to making positive change. I recommend you use a journal to help organize this process.
- Write down the pros and cons of changing the habit or adopting a new one. This will help you to solidify the commitment you made when you answered “Yes” to number 5 above. Note the feelings that come up for you as you review your lists. Breathe. Write down how you think you might address each potential con or barrier to making change. Expand on the pros of making change.
- Craft a new routine. Decide how you will work up to your goal (e.g., a goal of cutting down on coffee might require a gradual decrease from 5 cups to 1 over a period of a few weeks, substituting tea for coffee, and perhaps changing the timing of when you have coffee or another caffeinated beverage).
- Create a schedule. Look at your calendar and decide by when you want to have implemented your new routine. Working backwards, break this change into steps. For example, if the goal is to run 5 miles, and you currently can run 1, come up with a realistic timeframe for increasing activity, perhaps setting weekly goals for a few months. If the goal is to decrease or cease doing something, plan this out similarly. Schedule days and times for implementing your new routine and achieving mini-goals just as you would schedule any other important commitments.
- Decide on reward contingencies. Contingencies help your brain to change its expectations related to how, when, and if you will receive a reward. Specifically, contingencies set up a system whereby you can only have the reward after you have performed a specific behavior, or if it is performed at a certain time, etc. To use the coffee example, if you normally have coffee first thing in the morning, and want to decrease your dependence on it, you may want to delay the earliest time when you can have it (after lunch), or only have it after you have completed another healthy behavior (such as having had a few glasses of water, or only after exercise).
- Add mindfulness to your toolbox. Mindfulness refers to present-moment, non-judgmental awareness. It involves noticing one’s thoughts, emotions, and judgments as mental events, without holding onto them. When thoughts or feelings enter the mind, acknowledge them and move your attention to your breath – as if you were moving a flashlight beam from one thing to another. Mindfulness will help you decrease stress and become more aware of the chain of thoughts or events, feelings or cravings, and typical behaviors that make up the habit. Becoming more aware will enhance your power to change.
- Create a psychological ritual. Sometimes we need help releasing old ways of thinking about ourselves or what is possible for us. One ritual that can help with this process is writing down the worries related making positive change. These might be thoughts such as, “I’m worried I will fail.” Or, “I am afraid I will miss (insert habit).” You may also wish to write down what you dislike about the old tool, such as “Being dependent on (the habit),” or “Feeling bad about myself.” Write down whatever comes to mind. Breathe. When you are ready, visualize the relief you will feel when you have moved on from the habit. Crumple the paper and discard it in the garbage outside of your home. This is a symbolic way of removing from your immediate sphere the habit and the fears of letting go of it. Notice how it feels to release something that the healthiest part of you knows you no longer need.
- Engage in mental rehearsal. Hypnosis and imagery are wonderful tools with considerable research support for their ability to enhance confidence, decrease distress, and assist with creating positive change. (They are also among my favorite tools to use.) We know from recent studies that hypnotically imagining something activates the brain in ways that are similar to actually doing it. We also know that this effect is qualitatively different from casually imagining or daydreaming.
- “Experience” this change with as many senses as possible. Related to number 7, it’s especially effective to use multi-sensory imagery when “envisioning” a desired change. Really “be” in your body as you engage in the new exercise regimen. “Taste” the healthy food choices and “feel” yourself enjoying them. Notice what you “hear,” how things “smell,” and what you “see” as you make the changes you desire. Allow yourself to step into the feeling of having already accomplished your goal. The more you do this, the more vivid the benefits of making change will be for you, and the more powerful a tool your new routine will become.
- Strive to be compassionate, patient, and loving with yourself. Doing so decreases distress, and also helps you to support yourself during a process of transition. Meditate, pray, seek the support of loved ones, or engage in whatever health-supportive practice helps you to feel peaceful and kind toward yourself. Strive to do one simple, caring thing for yourself each day.
- If needed, consult a professional. If the habit is one you have had for a while, or the above are not sufficient to help manage distress during the process of change, consult with a professional who can provide additional support and guidance.
To summarize, habits consist of a chain of triggers, behaviors, and rewards. The above recommendations can help you better understand your particular habit chain, become more aware of the pros and cons of making change, and let go of worry about the process. You can then create and commit to an effective plan for change that is in line with your healthiest self.
Dr. Traci Stein is a licensed psychologist, certified clinical hypnotherapist, and health educator. She is also the former Director of Integrative Medicine at Columbia University Medical Center, and the creator of several affirming self-hypnosis programs. Her most recent one, “Creating Positive Change,” is available via HealthJourneys.com, iTunes, and Amazon.com. If you try the program and like it, please review it!
To learn more about Dr. Stein, follow her on Facebook, Twitter (@DrTraciStein), or visit her website www.DrTraciStein.com.