Dear Dr. Alasko,
Since I was kid I've loved risky activities: skydiving, fast motorcycles, gambling. Now I'm married, have a child and a good job, and I realize my love of the adrenaline rush is a problem. My wife says I over-do everything: I'm obsessive about work, food, TV . . . and I no longer exercise. I really want to change some of my bad habits but so far have had little success. Any suggestions?
Let's start with the good news: You listed two of the most necessary components that facilitate changing old habits. One, you've realized that your habits are having a negative effect on your life and marriage. Two, you want to change them.
And both are helpful. All too often people equivocal (or even delusional) about their negative behaviors. "I work so much only to support the family." "I don't watch that much TV." "I'm not that overweight. I'm just cuddly." These evasive attitudes compromise any decision to change because they dilute the need to change.
In your case, however, you already want to modify your behaviors, because you recognize that they affect your long-term happiness. So you're off to a good start.
Here are some basic steps involved in changing long-standing habits:
First, make peace with your personality structure. Take a positive, friendly attitude toward your history. "I've always loved risk. I was born that way. Sometimes taking risks and being excessive have proven helpful."
Then bring yourself into the present. "Now I have adult responsibilities, and my natural tendencies toward excess are affecting my happiness and my future."
This stress-lowering self-supportive message aids in self-understanding, self-compassion and future planning. Actual brain imaging reinforces the value of this approach. Dieters who acknowledge their cravings but nudge them back into line through relaxation techniques can calm their urges faster than someone who tries to use brute resistance.
The next step is recognizing that the will to change involves "muscles" in the brain that need exercising. Brute strength will power is not enough. You need to practice, practice, practice. Learn from every relapse. And don't get angry with yourself for past over-indulgences.
Why? Because when relapses occur—and they will—getting angry with yourself is counter-productive, because anger stimulates the brain to take action. And often the action that anger triggers is the "what-the-hell" response, which tells you "It's too late now! I failed!" So you might as well have that hot fudge sundae. Or a six-pack. Or watch TV all night.
How can you avoid such obstacles in advance? Again, let's turn to research about breaking bad habits. What it shows that setting up new routines in advance diverts energy away from the usual pathways. For instance, before leaving for work, place your running shoes by the door so when you come home—there they are! You won't have to do a lot of thinking when you're tired, and putting them on will become more automatic.
Also, talk to yourself regularly (for example, on the way home from work) and constantly reinforce your ability to make small changes. Tell yourself "Changing habits is tough, but I can do it, a small piece at a time."
Finally, be sure to celebrate every change no matter how small. Running once around the block is a major improvement to your health over never doing it at all. Always talk to yourself about the danger that bad habits pose to your long-term happiness, and recite the reasons the good habits will make your life better. And don't give up.