HOW TO BREAK A BAD HABIT FOR GOOD
Here’s how to get the cigs, wine, crisps or mindless spending out of your life.
If you are determined to quit a bad habit, whether that’s smoking, social media bingeing or mindless snacking, willpower is not enough. Professor Ben C Fletcher is co-author with Professor Karen Pine of the book and app Love Not Smoking: Do Something Different (Hay House, 2011). Their Do Something Different techniques have been used to tackle a wide range of behavioural habits with impressive results. Ben is Head of the School of Psychology at the University of Hertfordshire.
Can you develop your resolve to build your ‘mental muscle’ or self control so you can keep to your good intentions?
Most people will not be successful trying to do this. For most people most of the time it is no good trying to break bad habits with mental resolve and willpower – the research shows this is a very limited resource. It always seems to have run out just when you need it to. Besides, if your mind is constantly focussed on what you must NOT do, this makes you do it more – a phenomenon that’s called ‘behavioural rebound’. In out lab, for example, we have shown that a smoker trying to suppress thoughts of having a cigarette, or a dieter to eat less, makes the person do more of what they are trying to avoid!
So what can you do that will help?
If you know what you are trying to achieve, remember that most of the cravings that cause you to break your resolve last only a few minutes at most. Our Do Something Different research shows that a brief disruptor is useful at times of peak craving. We give people a set of ‘habit breaker’ cards to use at these times (whether it is to quell the urge for a cigarette, or food, or to tackle a feeling of stress). The idea is that the person simply does what it says on the card (or on the App), putting something else in the way of the craving/feeling. These can be simple things such as count backwards in 3’s from 97. This gets the quitter over a craving in the short-term but the longer behavioural habit chains also need breaking if the addiction is to be overcome longer term.
But that only helps for a few minutes?
Yes, but it helps you to get used to realising that you can help yourself in simple ways and start to achieve what you want. Many people get into a state of being so down about themselves that they think they cannot change. This is not true.
What can you do to really help the changes?
In the Do Something Different techniques, we do three other things:
First, we give people simple things to do each day that are new to them – perhaps as simple as going a different way to work or reading something new. This is to help prepare them and get them used to having new experiences and being more open. People are 99% habits and habits are incredibly strong – much stronger than willpower.
Second, we get people to change their habits, routines and rituals so that they reduce the number of ‘triggers’ in the environment. Because the brain is such a powerful ‘habit machine’ it reacts to triggers without you knowing it. So you reach for the crisps with the drink, the cigarette with the coffee etc. without realising it. Bad habits are the result of a chain of behaviours and the chain has to be broken before the willpower is needed!
Third, we develop people, so they are more resilient and able to get what they want. Do Something Different research shows that the key to breaking these habit chains is to increase behavioural flexibility – to extend your personality and your comfort zone. It is no good just trying to think differently, as in many other approaches. You need to tackle these with daily tasks that you can incorporate into everyday life. With Do Something Different we provide daily ways for you to grow and flex – such as being more or less assertive than normal, or changing how conventional/unconventional you seem. When you do something different you also get something different and this has a positive effect on how you feel and what you get from others. It also reveals to people how habit-bound they have become and they get a better glimpse of how others see them.
I would also say to someone trying to give up an addiction to BROADCAST IT to others. Other people can be a good reminder as well as a good support network too. You could also make a public pledge, or a written pledge to someone you love. It is also a good idea to have a careful and specific quit plan – with all the whens, wheres and hows for all the occasions that they will come up against.
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