Problem habits are high on the list of things that most people want to overcome. For example, do you worry too much? Do your friends joke about you showing up late? Do you shop and spend too much? Are you caught up in too many lies? Do you eat calorie-rich food when you want to lose weight? Do you live your life through Facebook? Do you bite your nails? Do you procrastinate?
What makes a habit a problem habit? That's simple. The habit occurs automatically and has negative results. The degree of harm varies from very little to a lot. Some, like nose picking, can cause you to look unappealing when you are observed; when alone this probably won't matter that much. Some can result in serious physical harm: smoking raises your risk for lung cancer. Some are the consequences of stress or anxiety, such as when you procrastinate on taking steps to overcome a recurring anxiety.
You can learn to lessen or extinguish these and other undesirable habits. Let’s look at more than 12 options for getting them out of your life.
I divided problem habits into three categories: (1) habits of mind, such as worrying excessively, (2) habits of consumption, such as eating excessively, and (3) habits of behavior, such as nail biting. The categories suggest different remedies. I’ll give brief tips for each type of problem habit (tips for one group of problems may also apply to another). Then I’ll share a general habit-breaking tip.
Before we go any further, what’s your worst problem habit?
A habit of the mind is where you automatically repeat beliefs and thoughts that lead to the same emotional and behavioral troubles. For example, some anxieties are based on fictions where you exaggerate risks and threats that most would consider non-dangerous events. Here’s an example. You believe that strangers you meet will see your faults and reject you. You dread going to social gatherings where you may meet strangers and you habitually avoid them whenever you can. You often feel lonely and spend a lot of time feeling sorry for yourself.
Like most negative habits of the mind, fictional anxieties are correctable. They are based on situations that, when you are in them, evoke fears that are also based on fictions. For example, face up to what you foolishly fear often enough, and you are likely to stop feeling afraid. You are less likely to feel anxious about something that you no longer fear1. So, if you are afraid of rejection in social situations, daily expose yourself to a social situation. If, after a few weeks, you no longer feel so anxious, what changed? (Exposure is a gold standard for combating fear situations that arouse anxiety.)
You may do more than exaggerate or fictionalize threats. You may also feel anxious about feeling and looking anxious. This is a double trouble situation. You feel anxious about a situation and anxious about feeling anxious2. By accepting anxiety over anxiety as inconvenient (not terrible), you may feel considerably calmer.
It is tough to resist consumptive urges. You want to lose weight. You see a bowl of potato chips. You tell yourself you’ll eat only one potato chip. Then, almost as if you were in a trance, you gobble down one chip after another. You smoke and want to quit. You tell yourself you’ll stop someday. You drink too much. You know you have to quit. But, the bottle is your buddy.
You don’t have to smoke or drink. Indeed, by the age of 30, most people kick their addictive habits without professional help3. However, you have to eat to live. But, you don’t have to eat fattening snacks. In a sense, they are like nicotine and alcohol.
You don’t have to devour potato chips as if you had no other choice. Nevertheless, when tempting snacks are before your eyes (or you have a craving for a particular fattening food) you have a first line of defense: do something constructive to take your mind off consuming the snack. If you don’t start eating chips, you avoid having your mind go on automatic pilot where you start consuming like a ravenous reptile. Can you do better than what your reptilian brain dictates?
If you have a craving-urge problem to address, and have a hard time dealing with it, what's next? Perhaps you have a pink elephant problem. Here’s the situation. For the next minute, try not to think of a pink elephant. If you are like most the harder you try to suppress the elephant the bigger it grows4. In a sense, that is why some habit urges and cravings linger longer. Accept them without a felt need to act on them, and they tend to lose their power.
Here’s another option to the pink elephant problem. Actively substitute a coping tactic. When you start to have a snack attack, before you do anything else, do something other than take the first morsel.
Here is a time interval experiment. When you have an urge to consume find out how long the urge lasts. Check your watch. Keep your eyes squarely on the time, Does the urge last two minutes? Twelve minutes? Watch for changes in your emotions. Do you get impatient watching your watch? Do you get bored? Do you feel intrigued by what is happening? What do you make of your emotions?
Here is a hypothesis for you to test: Once the urge subsides, are you less likely to consume the snack? If the timing technique works for you, keep practicing until you make this into a competitive, positive, habit to pit against the problem variety.
Here’s another. Try a combination technique and see if you can procrastinate on executing your worst problem habit. Redo the time interval experiment. This time do the experiment with a different twist. Instead of watching your watch, fill the time with an activity. Here’s how. Between the start and end of an urge, use my procrastination rewards technique. Intentionally do what you might do if you were procrastinating.
When you procrastinate, you always substitute something less relevant for what you are putting off. You dust instead of read. You fiddle instead of doing a pressing report. You shuffle papers instead of making an important phone call. These habitual behavioral diversions extend delaying when you are probably better off not delaying.
You can turn procrastination distractions to your advantage. As you are doing your time interval measure, do things that might ordinarily reward a procrastination habit. You dust your desk. You text. You plan next year’s vacation. You may find that distractions, that ordinarily reward procrastination, also reward delaying the habit that you want to delay, then end. Test it out. See what results from this combination experiment. If this doesn't work for you, try another way.
By the way, did you feel any different between when you watched your watch as time flowed on and when you filled that time void with activity? Did you discover anything interesting that you can use to quiet your problem habit urges?
Problem habits of behavior can be self-defeating, especially when you make a negative impression on people that you want to impress. Chewing your pencil is an example. Here are a few others: lip smacking, finger tapping, and vocalizations such as "Ya know,” “Umm."
Awareness is an antiseptic for habits of behavior. Developing competing actions is a second. Let’s start with awareness.
“Seeing is believing.” Video feedback can be a great source of information. Observe yourself on tape. You may notice mannerisms and habits that merit eliminating. Self-monitoring is another great method. Watch what you do and when. Target high-risk times where your habit is likely to surface. Plan, and then practice a competitive habit.
To deal with a habit of behavior start building a competing habit. For example, if you tap your fingers when you feel impatient, practice a different response. Fold your fingers together instead. If you want to make this competing response automatic, try an overcorrection experiment. When you are by yourself, move your finger as if you were ready to start tapping. Then, immediately fold your fingers together.
How long does it take to find out if overcorrection can work for you? It takes as long as it takes. Here’s an experiment. For the next week, for four times a day, for three-minutes per time, practice your overcorrection technique. See what happens.
Here is a technique that you can use with different problem habits, including your worst habit. It involves taking an easy attitude toward the problem habit.
Here is how the easy attitude technique works. You allow yourself to experience the urge. You study your urge and habit in live time. You accept the urge as transitory: it is like a cloud flowing with a passing breeze.
From the time interval experiment, you know that urges have a relatively short lifespan. By accepting the urge, as part of what is going on now, that shift in perspective can transform the urge into feelings you can tolerate. If you can better tolerate a feeling or urge, you’ll have less of a struggle5.
Here is something else. Habit urges and substance craving are not the only thing that are going on in your life. What else is taking place that is of greater importance? This shift in the locus of your focus puts your habit urge into a broader perspective. The habit urge or substance craving may not seem so compelling or important in the broader context of your life.
To learn more about anxiety, click on The Cognitive Behavioral Workbook for Anxiety (Second Edition)
To learn more about procrastination, click on End Procrastination Now
Here’s the American Psychological Association style for citing the procrastination reward technique, or other information, from this blog:
Knaus, W. (August 12, 2015). How to Start Breaking Your Worst Habit Today [Blog Post] Retrieved from https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/science-and-sensibility/201508/how-...
1. Knaus, W. (2014). The Cognitive Behavioral Workbook for Anxiety (Second Edition). Oakland CA: New Harbinger.
2. Ellis, A. and Knaus, W. (1979). Overcoming Procrastination. NY: New American Library
3. Heyman, G. M. (2013). Addiction and Choice: Theory and New Data. Frontiers in Psychiatry. 64: 31 Retrieved from http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3644798/
4. Knaus, W. (1982). How to Get Out of a Rut. Englewood Cliffs NJ: Prentice Hall.
5. Knaus, W. (1994). Change Your Life Now. NY: John Wiley.
© Dr. Bill Knaus