Ditching Your Comfort Zone

Is it time to jump the lily pad?

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Breaking the Bonds of Habits That Bind Us

How to boot the inner gremlin and take charge of rewiring your brain

“I know you’re trying to quit. In fact, you’ve been doing really well, so go ahead, cut yourself some slack. You deserve it. One time won’t hurt. You’ll feel better. Trust me. Besides, you know you want to . . .”

The gremlin isn’t on your shoulder; it’s inside your head resisting the rewiring job you’ve already started. And why shouldn’t it resist? It lives there. It has its routine down pat. It’s gotten cozy.

Sure, the furniture’s a little rickety and the upholstery’s worn through and the carpet needs replacing. But hey, stains are a good thing, right? They mean you don’t have to watch yourself. They mean you can relax, take it easy. Kick back and have a smoke. Forget the diet. Ashes on the tabletop? No problem. Twinkie wrappers on the floor? So what?

The gremlin is a gracious host.

But run a new wire between its favorite recliner and the TV set? Don’t even think about it. Forget the fact that the view you’re obscuring consists only of re-runs broadcasting on an endless loop. Those are gremlin’s favorite shows: comfortable, predictable, and above all, familiar.

Home is where we hang our habits – usually the ones we aren’t proud of and don’t want anyone to see, sometimes including ourselves.

When we do get around to noticing habits we want to change, it can be a long time before we muster the will to act. Anxieties and fears creep in to warn us against a makeover of our inner environs. The going won’t be easy because the gremlin will resist – we can count on it.

Whether the habit is smoking cigarettes, chewing gum balls, or dining out more often than we’d like, long behavioral histories of reward associated with those activities make them to some extent (sometimes to a very great extent) rewarding in and of themselves.

Take the family dog who has gotten in the habit of barking and chasing after mail trucks whenever they rumble by. Initially, some fear connected to mail trucks reared its head, causing Fido to leap into attack mode. Fido’s behavior was rewarded by the passing of the truck regardless of his actual role in “chasing” it away.

From Fido’s perspective, something worked. Over time, barking and chasing after mail trucks became rewarding in its own right – perhaps even to the point of anticipating with pleasure the arrival of the next truck.

It is quite natural for the perception of success based on reward to translate into habitual action. The phenomenon is so strong that we are often willing to cling to habits in the mere hope of reward even when the payoffs themselves become increasingly more illusive, as is the case for many smokers.

The willingness to even begin contemplation of kicking a habit, whatever it may be, generally means that some aspect of reward previously associated with the activity has begun to diminish.

That is often when the time is ripe for creatively developing an alternate reward that can compete with – and eventually replace – the payoffs of the no longer desired behavior. These can be time-consuming and sometimes challenging transitions to make. But there are some tools in the behavioral training bag for making them.

In Fido’s case, a seasoned animal behaviorist seeking to break the mail truck chasing habit might opt to train what is known as a differentially reinforced incompatible behavior (DRI).

Let’s take the easy part first. Lying down is incompatible with chasing. For a dog, it also happens to be incompatible with persistent barking because it’s easier to bark when the chest has a full range of motion.

A clever trainer will already be interacting with Fido, keeping him engaged in a steady stream of fun and games before the mail truck even arrives on the scene. When the truck makes its appearance, the trainer will ask Fido to lie down, and then will reward the lying behavior with a combination of praise, treats, and rubdowns.

The key is to provide enough variety and quantity of reinforcement (there’s the differential part of DRI training) to successfully compete with the dog’s habitual, and by now hardwired, response to the truck.

Essentially, DRI training is simply the controlled substitution of one behavior for another. Studies of brain chemistry and neural pathway rewiring have shown that when it comes to breaking the bonds of habits that bind us, it is far more effective to concentrate on building a desired behavior than to focus on quashing an unwanted one.

With enough practice and payoff, followed by a long-term tapering of rewards from the trainer, Fido will eventually take the presence of the mail truck as his cue to lie down rather than bark and chase. So, when you get ready to rewire your own inner landscape, be prepared for some kickback from the gremlin – and then tell him to lie down while you differentially reinforce your way toward the habits and choices you really do want.

Copyright © Seth Slater, 2012

Ditching Your Comfort Zone