Grocery store chains have been on a campaign to change folks’ shopping bag habits for years. They’ve tried incentives like pennies-per-bag rebates and fuel discounts. They’ve posted notices in the store windows: “Did you remember to bring your bags?” Most shoppers profess that they want to use reusable bags. Still, they haven’t been able to change their habits.
Habits are behaviors we perform automatically every day. We seldom think about what they are or why we do them. They control our actions without our consent. Yet they play a significant role in defining who we are. Many of our habits are beneficial. Brushing our teeth before leaving for work or fastening our seat belts when we get in the car are examples of habits that keep us safe and healthy. Cleaning the cat’s litter box two times each week makes the air fresh in our homes and cuts back on germs.
Habits also save space on our psychological hard drives. Behaviors conducted on emotional auto-pilot are those that exact minimal energies. Our brains are able to easily multitask because some chores require no thought at all.
But bad habits can create serious problems. If we eat doughnuts at work, we’re likely to gain unwanted pounds. Habitually speaking rudely to our spouse fosters hostility in the relationship. Shopping online for items we don’t need leads to overspending and financial chaos.
None of our habits cropped up overnight. They’ve all been progressing for long periods of time, usually below our mental radar. Many of our habits were formed in childhood, learned by watching our parents or by being guided via family rules. In adulthood, we make our own choices and decide how we’re going to behave. That’s a pivotal time for deciding which actions we’re going to keep and which we’re going to send packing.
Researchers have found that habits are triggered by cues in our environment. For instance, we may associate the act of walking into a movie theatre with the purchase of a tub of buttered popcorn. We think we’re acting on our own volition and suddenly craving a hot, salty snack. Actually, we’re responding to a familiar stimulus in a pre-conditioned way.
The key to changing unwanted behavior lies in examining our surroundings. We first notice which cues trigger destructive patterns. Then we avoid them or replace them with healthier choices.
Tips for breaking bad habits
Have a bad habit you'd like to break? Try these suggestions:
Identify the undesirable behavior. Be specific about what needs changing, for instance, “Snacking at the office,” or “Not using recyclable bags.” Naming your enemy is half the battle and helps you focus on the work to be done.
Write it down. The simple act of committing your task to paper increases the likelihood that you’ll succeed. Next, post it in a spot where you can see it periodically throughout the day.
Find a replacement. Fill a missing trigger with a new behavior. If you’re staying away from alcohol, don’t socialize with people who are heavy drinkers. Search out a crowd with like-minded values whose behaviors will support your quest.
Allow 30 days for change. Rather than thinking about forever, consider altering your behavior for a shorter, more manageable amount of time. This strategy will decrease impatience and negative messages about success. Stay in the present. Don’t get caught up in the future. Instead, amend your behavior right now. Take those steps necessary to be what you want. Everything else will fall into place.
Change your environment to support your new habit. Don’t want to eat after dinner? Sign up for an evening art class so you’re out of the house at night. You’ll free yourself of triggers that could pull you back into the old routine.
Enlist help. You don’t need to do it alone. Ask others to join in your pursuit. Invite co-workers to walk with you during your lunch break. Or promise your kids a trip to Disneyland when you’re smoke-free.
Analyze problem areas. Still having trouble changing a habit? Scrutinize what’s going wrong. Perhaps you’ve been unrealistic about your progress. Maybe you didn’t find something new to put in its place. Whatever the reason, address the hurdle as best you can. Then start living the life you want.
Linda Lewis Griffith is a local marriage and family therapist. For information or to contact her, visit lindalewisgriffith.com