We all have some bad habits. These are actions that we engage in repetitively which have negative impacts on ourselves and other people. We may be aware of our bad habits and have a plan to overcome them, or a plan to make a plan to overcome them. But we may not even be aware of our bad habits. Being aware of habits is the key to changing them, so let’s consider what goes into making a habit.
The field of Behaviorism gives us a helpful way to think about our habits. A habit can be seen as a loop with three parts that flow from one to the next: a trigger, a behavior and a reward. For example, a trigger may be feeling lonely, which leads to the behavior of eating ice cream, which leads to the reward of feeling better for the moment. Because we get a nice reward from that behavior, we remember it the next time we meet the same trigger. Each time we go through this loop, the habit is strengthened. Eventually, the habit can become so strong that it seems to happen on its own. It can get programmed into our brains.
If we pay attention, we’ll notice that our bad habits have negative impacts. For example, if we eat some ice cream to feel better, we’re putting off resolving an issue and we’re putting more fat and sugar into our bodies than we probably should.
It’s common that we begin trying to change a habit by simply not engaging in the behavior that brings consequences. We might try not eating ice cream at all. That may work, but it often doesn’t. Policing ourselves with willpower is difficult and it’s also common that people give up at this point. If we just remove the behaviour from that loop of three parts, we probably won’t learn a new positive habit, because there is no loop flowing.
If you want to quit a habit, I suggest changing it rather than getting rid of it. Research backs up this approach. Replacing a bad habit with a good one is much more effective than just quitting the bad habit. This is when you can get creative with the process. It’s best if you pay attention throughout it.
First, you need to recognize your triggers. It could be a feeling like loneliness. Next, recognize what you do in reaction to the trigger. It could be an action like eating ice cream. Finally, recognize what you get out of that. It could be a distraction or a sugar rush that makes you feel better for the time being.
What you want to do is switch out that action with a new one. The new action you choose could be anything, but make it something that you can get a positive reward from doing. Perhaps if you feel lonely, you could write an email to a friend you haven’t been in touch with recently. You do that instead of eating ice cream and you get the reward of feeling connected to that friend. The loop flows, but in a healthier direction. These positive loops get strengthened over time just like the negative loops do.
We all get caught in these kinds of loops. If you are caught in one that is causing problems for yourself or the people around you, I’ll remind you that it is very possible to change that situation with some effort. We can replace our bad habits with better habits that take care of ourselves and even help us thrive. Simply pay attention and get creative.
– Alex Rogowsky is a Registered Professional Counsellor practicing in Brandon.