Changing Habits

Here’s part of the draft of the chapter on changing habits and behaviors. As always, we’d like to know what you think and here about potential new sources.

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The mindfulness practices described in the last chapter are important – mindfulness can literally save your life – but, often, people just want to know how to build good habits or get rid of bad habits.

A habit is a recurring behavior, often unconscious, acquired through repetition. Much of human behavior is habitual if not hypnagogic. Actions that are very familiar to us can be performed automatically, freeing our attention for other purposes, but potentially reducing our behavioral flexibility. Once established, an unwanted habit can be difficult to change. Often, we have heard that the inability to change a “bad” habit is a moral failing or indicative of a lack of will. Many recent studies, however, show that habitual behavior is frequently much less under our control than we would like to believe, as much of what prompts habitual behavior is physiological responses to stimuli.. Most people find it very hard to change unwanted habits by direct attention and will., because that effort alone doesn’t directly deal with the physiological responses, which also need to be worked with in order to effectively change a habit. Luckily, recent studies have also looked at people who are unusually successful at creating and changing habits and have discovered some basic patterns.

Researchers from the University College London studied how people formed new habits, such as eating a piece of fruit with a meal or doing a 15 minute run each day. On the average, study participants reported a steady increase in automaticity, plateauing after 66 days. That is, after a little over two months, most of the people found that the new behavior was as much of a habit as it was ever going to become. The time it takes to establish a habit seems to vary depending on the individual (some people are neurologically more habit resistant than others are), repetition, motivation (reward), belief (it is important to believe that change is possible), and the complexity or difficulty of the behavior. Researchers found that missing a single day does not reduce the chance of forming a habit. It also seems easier for many people to change as part of a group.

Most people find it most effective to make one change at a time. As mentioned above, the average time for making a simple change in daily behavior is a little over two months. As the saying goes, your mileage may differ, but a good rule of thumb would be to devote about two months before trying to move on to a different behavior change.

Understand your motivation. Habits are examples of stimulus-response learning. This means that there is a cue, which triggers the habitual behavior (the response), followed by a reward. All established habits have some sort of reward or we wouldn’t continue the behaviors. Rewards can include pleasure, of course, but also relief from stress or discomfort. It’s important to recognize that the reward is, in and of itself, a physiological change, which is why habits are so powerful. The experience of pleasure isn’t just a feeling. It is a physiological response, and that response is something your body comes to crave on not just a conscious level, but also the physiological level.

To establish a habit, you should choose a simple clue and the behavior should result in a clear reward that you come to anticipate. That is, the cue must trigger your craving for the reward.
All habits have roughly the same structure; a craving triggers the habitual behavior and that provides a reward. In the case of a “bad” habit, the cost of the reward outweighs its benefit. Changing a habit requires that you understand what triggers the behavior and what reward it provides. It is important to identify the craving correctly. It’s also important to consider how you will work on the physiological level to change the habit. It’s not just a matter of changing the behavior, but also changing the physiology supporting the habit.

Once you are sure you know what craving triggers a habit you want to change, try linking the craving to different routines and rewards. After trying the new routine and reward combination, wait fifteen minutes or so. Do you still feel the original craving? Habits cannot be eradicated, but they can be replaced. The cue and reward connected with a habit can be linked to a different behavior. To change a habit, you must consciously substitute new behavior for the old behavior and it must provide a reward that is at least as satisfying as the reward provided by the behavior you are trying to change.

file000264054481On the physiological level, do meditation on the habit, and work on rewriting the physiology. You want to work with the Basal Ganglia in particular, as it is the part of the brain that automates the physiological response to the habits. You may find it useful to journey to that part of your brain and then visualize the habit you want to change. Observe the neural pathway for that habit. Next visualize the new habit you want to use to replace the old habit, and while you are visualizing it, redirect the neural pathway to a different neuron that you’ll map the new habit to.
If you find a routine and reward that satisfies your original craving (and is, hopefully, more desirable than the habit you are trying to change), you can try using it to change your old behavior. If you still feel the original craving, then continue experimenting with different combinations of routines and rewards.

When you’ve found a routine and reward combination that satisfies the craving, the next step is to identify the cues associated with the craving. Generally, cues (triggers) for behavior can be described as a combination of the following factors:

• Location
• Time
• Emotional State
• Other People
• The immediately preceding action

Once you have identified the cue, you can insert your new routine. You should have a plan to implement your new behavior. This requires a commitment to be aware of the critical cue and to substitute the new routine for the old habitual behavior.

Once you have your plan in place, it is important to rehearse it your head, imagining yourself experiencing the cue and implementing the new behavior. For most people, repeatedly telling themselves to do the new behavior is not that effective. The more fully you can imagine the cue situation and the new behavior – the more you can imagine how doing the new behavior will look, feel, and sound –the more readily you will remember to implement the new behavior when the real situation comes up. Supplementing this visualization with the visualization of your physiology, and specifically redirecting the neural pathway to the new habit, can also help with changing your habits. Doing these two activities in tandem will provide the necessary momentum to change a bad habit into a good habit.

Controlling Nervous Habits

Studies have shown the following method to highly effective for stopping nail-biting, hair-pulling, tics, stuttering, thumb sucking, and other nervous habits. They obtained 90% reduction in the habit the first day, 95% reduction within the first week, and 99% after month of practice.

The method consists of learning to substitute an acceptable but incompatible action in place of the unwanted behavior. The new behavior should interfere with the bad habit, but not with anything else. It should not be noticeable by anyone around you, but should be something you are very aware of as well as something you can do for at least three minutes. For example, grasping something like a pencil can be substituted for hair pulling or nail biting. Anything that prevented the unwanted behavior could be used; conscious breathing in the case of throat clearing, brushing the hair for hair pulling, and so on.

Practice the new response five to ten minutes every day for at least a week. Spend some time imagining how and when you can use the new response. After you’ve practiced the behavior, the new response must be used for three minutes every time any of the following situations occur:

• you find yourself doing the old behavior
• you feel the urge to do the old behavior
• you enter a place or situation where the old habit frequently occurred
• you realize you are doing something that often precedes the unwanted behavior

Careful self-observation is required to discover the situations, activities, and people that trigger the bad habit. It is important to practice relaxing in the habit producing situations, and practicing replacing the old habit with the new response.

Other Approaches to Changing Habits

In general, most approaches to changing habits involve some combination of the following methods:

• Replacing the old behavior with a new behavior (substitution) – As described in the last few pages, this approach involves identifying the cue and deliberately substituting a new response. To be effective, however, the new behavior must provide substantially the same reward as that provided by the old behavior.

• Repeating the behavior until a negative response occurs – Essentially, repeating the behavior until one is so sick of it that the original response is replaced by repulsion.

• Changing location or situation to remove the trigger (interruption) – Avoiding the triggers for a particular behavior can help provide space to establish new behaviors. Typically, this means avoiding the situation or location where an unwanted habit occurs.

• Gradually introducing the cue that triggers the behavior (desensitization) – The idea is that by exposure to just a tiny bit of stimulus at a time, someone can learn a different response to the cue.

• Punishing the behavior (aversion) – In this, the most traditional approach to behavior change, negative consequences are associated with the original behavior. By itself, this method has never been that successful, mainly because it does not provide alternative behavior that satisfies the original intent of the unwanted behavior.

Specific techniques using the approaches described above are described later in this book. As with most things, it is important to use common sense with any of these methods.



All Content Copyright 2012 Bill Whitcomb and Taylor Ellwood