5 Elements of Habit Change Practice for the Beginner

Self on 01.25.13
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My post 5 Amazing Lessons I Learned by Giving up Alcohol for One Month caused quite a stir. People are intrigued by the idea of learning how to change very difficult habits, and many people signed up for my newsletter in order to get more information on the topic. While I’m working on a more comprehensive eBook on habit change that will be available free to newsletter subscribers, I put together this much shorter post for people to consider in the meantime.

I need to start off by saying these aren’t THE elements of successfully changing a habit; these are only a scant few. However, if you have a habit you’re trying to ditch, it’s helpful to get started by asking yourself these five questions:

1. What is the situational trigger that kicks off the habit you want to change?

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Here’s an example from my own life. My trigger occurs in the evening when I want to go upstairs and read in bed before I go to sleep.

Here comes the bad habit – before heading up the stairs, I stop at my computer with the purpose of briefly checking emails. Then I check Facebook, read some articles on Jezebel, Cracked, and The Daily Mail, where I get sucked into reading the annoying comments. When I’m annoyed enough, I’ll visit Facebook again. Repeat ad nauseum, until my husband whispers down the stairs that he’s going to sleep. Darn it. Time that could have been better spent reading, planning, writing, or sleeping has been wasted with useless web surfing.

So to answer the question already, my trigger is knowing when I should go upstairs, but eyeballing my laptop and choosing to sit down at my computer instead. A situational trigger for you might involve a certain time of day, being in a certain place, being around certain people, seeing a commercial, or otherwise looking at the very thing you are trying to avoid. Make a list of situations that trigger your bad habit.

2. What is the emotional trigger or craving that kicks off the habit you want to change?

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I have so many triggers, my triggers have triggers. The first trigger is not wanting to muster the energy to climb the stairs. Sitting down at the computer feels like a good stalling tactic. I feel resistant to the transition from daytime to nighttime. Like a child who doesn’t want to go to bed, I don’t want to end the "entertainment" for the day. Then once I’m sitting at the computer, the dopamine (craving) takes over. I keep click-click-clicking, wanting some kind of elusive reward.

Describe how you feel right before you engage in your habit and during your habit. Do you feel anxious? Tired? Lonely? How do you slide into engaging with your habit without doing something to prevent it? Do you argue with yourself first, or do you do it (seemingly) without thinking?

The purpose of this exercise is to help you recognize the thoughts and feelings that surround your trigger. It might seem like you do it reflexively, but your brain always has thoughts first, no matter how fleeting, before you do something. The goal is to watch those thoughts and detach from them, rather than answering their call like it’s a directive you must obey.

3. What are the negatives that come with this habit?

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How do you feel afterward? What are the downsides for you? This list tends to grow over time, the more we pay attention. In fact, all of the inquiries in this post can grow over time as we start to become more aware of our triggers and the thoughts that fuel us towards keeping our bad habits protected.

When I web surf intead of going upstairs to bed, I feel regretful and tired, and sometimes stressed from all the negative and sensational stories at The Daily Mail. Afterwards, I often think, “GAH! Why do I DO that???!" Now I won't be as well-rested tomorrow. I didn't get enough time to read, feel inspired, visualize and plan great behaviors for tomorrow.

Afterwards, I slink up the stairs and slide into bed with no proper transition from sleeping to waking. I really enjoy unwinding in bed with a book and a notebook prior to sleep and filling my head with gratitude and inspiration, and this habit makes me feel disappointed that I robbed myself of that opportunity.

Warning: don’t get too relaxed after doing this third step. Just because you hate a habit doesn’t mean you will automatically stop. Try the next two steps with enthusiasm and cunning.

4. What is your interrupt strategy?

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What can you do to interrupt yourself, and prevent yourself from engaging in your bad habit? When you see your triggers begin to unfold before your eyes, how can you essentially say to yourself, “STOP! WAKE UP! DON’T DO IT!”

I recall from a Tony Robbins tape I listened to years ago that he and his wife were trying to interrupt their pattern of bickering. So when one of them realized they were about to go there, he or she would make some crazy animal noise, such as braying like a donkey. It always shocked them out of arguing (and I’m sure they had a few laughs in the process.)

Here is one tip. Arrange your environment and your activities to make it very, very easy for yourself to wake yourself up and interrupt your pattern. Here are some examples I could try:

  • Shut down and close my laptop before dinner.
  • Place my notebook and whatever book I’m reading in plain view (or on top of my laptop) as a reminder of what I really want to do.
  • Set an alarm as a signal to go upstairs.
  • Don’t sit down to watch TV after dinner – instead, just go upstairs immediately following dinner so I don’t have time to get too tired.

Aside from arranging your environment to make habit change easier, it can help to mentally rehearse your trigger and your interrupt strategy, along with new and improved self talk. So I can close my eyes for a minute and feel that urge to sit at the computer to web surf. I can practice saying to myself, “Don’t even think about it, Muppet head!” Okay, well, perhaps my self talk needs some more work. But it certainly interrupted the urge!

5. What will you do instead?

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Decide what you will do after you face your trigger and you successfully talk yourself away from it. Let it be something rewarding, something you look forward to. I happen to really enjoy sitting in bed and reading, so that’s one thing I can do. But what about those times when I want to surf at my computer and it’s not nighttime? I can go make some tea.

Speaking of tea, when I was in the process of giving up drinking alcohol, I used to brew myself a little pot of tea each afternoon. That way there was always some tea handy that I could sip when a craving hit. It was kind of a fun alternative, and it feels good knowing that my tea habit is a healthy one.

Try to pick something else that feels good. Gravitate towards another pleasurable (albeit virtuous) activity. This helps rewire your brain towards seeking pleasure in places other than your bad habit.

While these five tips aren’t the end-all-be-all for very difficult habits, they can provide a nice starting roadmap to practice for people who are beginning to consider habit change. And remember – failures aren’t the end – they are simply opportunities for learning and growth. So take each time that you “fail” to learn more about yourself and how you operate, and choose to learn what you can do differently next time!

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