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Why We Do Bad Things

How to break a bad habit

No matter how early you started smoking, drinking, gambling, overspending, lying, procrastinating, binge eating, or tossing recyclables into the regular garbage bin, you weren't born doing any of them. You learned how to do them.

Learned behavior is a wonderful thing because it makes life so much easier. It helps you move through the day in a more efficient way without having to waste mental energy on mundane daily tasks like boiling water and brushing your teeth. You do them without even thinking.

But learned behavior that allows you to act without thinking is not such a good thing when it results in bad habits that become difficult and often impossible to break. Take food, for instance. A study out of Duke University suggests that people who are in the habit of eating popcorn at the movies will eat it whether it's fresh or stale. While all students preferred fresh popcorn, those who consumed with a goal of eating something good while watching a movie ate less when it was stale. Those who consumed with the specific goal of eating popcorn at the movies ate just as much whether it was fresh or stale.

Back in the lab, where studies are often performed on animals, results have repeatedly shown that old habits really do die hard, especially if you're a rat. Humans may have a slightly easier time replacing old habits with new, but there are tough obstacles to overcome.

For one thing, once a habit is established, you will never completely "unlearn" it. You can stop overindulging, you can pointedly replace bad habits with better ones, but every habit you've ever picked up is there, somewhere in your neural network, just waiting to be rediscovered. That's why, while it's not a realistic immediate solution for most people, "just saying no" is your best first defense when you finally start to get a bad habit under control.

To successfully develop new habits, you have to set new, very specific, and very realistic goals for yourself. You must be committed to change. Uh, oh! Those are scary words to many, for sure, but no matter who you ask, that's the answer you'll get. The more flexible you are, and the more easily you accept change in other areas of your life, the easier it will be to make lifestyle changes. Fear of change is often what prevents us from letting go of self-destructive habits and truly enjoying the rest of our lives. You don't have to let that happen.

Not everyone is wired for addiction, but those who are need help if they're going to change their lives. Years ago, James Prochaska, professor of Clinical and Health Psychology at the University of Rhode Island and coauthor of Changing for Good, developed a model for the six stages of change we go through before we completely work through any problem. His model for change always bears repeating when we talk about addiction. So here are the stages; see if you can find yourself:

Pre-contemplation: You know there's a problem but you're not even thinking about change at this point. You think it's impossible, you don't really think you have a problem, or you're just in denial, assuming the problem will go away on its own someday.

Contemplation: You're beginning to acknowledge you have an unhealthy relationship with food (drugs, alcohol, tobacco, sex, gambling). You're weighing the benefits of change against the effort. You could stay in this stage for a long time, maybe years, thinking that changing your ways isn't worth the effort, especially if you're already feeling discouraged or demoralized or think you won't be successful.

Preparation: You've made a decision to act and you're gathering information. You're making phone calls, or you're searching the web to find out what you can do next. You're emotionally prepared to make lifestyle changes. You're setting goals and you might even be discussing your plans with others in a positive way. You're laying the groundwork for change.

Action: You are actively doing something about your problem. You're trying out lifestyle changes. Maybe you've stopped buying potato chips, joined a gym, or made an appointment to speak with a counselor. You are seeking support from family and friends.

Maintenance: You have made some real lifestyle changes and you're sticking with them. You're learning to work through the obstacles. This could be your final stage of change and you'll spend the rest of your life here.

Recycling/Relapse: Some people get to the maintenance stage and stay there, but most people aren't that successful the first time around. Most have to go back to the preparation or even the contemplation stage and start again. All you can do is go back to where you feel comfortable and start moving through the stages again.