Five Tips for Breaking Bad Habits

5 years ago

Everyone has bad habits, though we vilify some more than others. Whether your habits are endangering your health or just really annoying to other people, I'm here to help!

I just read Conversation Transformation: Recognize and Overcome the 6 Most Destructive Communication Patterns by Ben E. Benjamin, PhD, Amy Yeager and Anita Simon, ED.D. as well as The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business. I am feeling all habit-breaky now, so let me summarize more than 500 pages of reading for you and skip to the straight dope on behavior change. Let's get started fixing your whole life!* (*possible exaggeration)

Tip 1: Stop Saying "Yes, But ..."

If you want to stop arguing with people (or even one specific person), this is the first habit you need to break. Seriously. "Yes, but" is one of the most annoying phrases in the English language and the one that used to make me want to kick a puppy every time anyone said it. Saying "yes, but" is the conversational equivalent to punching someone in the face. It was almost funny to me to see that phrase highlighted by the authors of Conversation Transformation as one of the most toxic things you can say:

Yes-Butting is one of the most reliable ways to get an argument going, whether you're speaking with just one other person or with a group. If people you're talking to are the least bit competitive, they're likely to respond with yes-buts of their own. Before you know it, you can find yourself caught up in an endless ping-pong match of competing ideas. Yes-but communication is a leading cause of unproductive business meetings, as time that could be spent on collaborative decision making or problem solving is instead wasted on tedious arguments ... (page. 30)

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Tip 2: Replace One Habit With Another

Charles Duhigg spent a lot of time assuring me I wouldn't really have success in breaking one habit unless I consciously recognized that I was doing it and replaced it with something else. This can be as literal as replacing soda with milk or as abstract as putting on your running shoes before you get in your car to go home instead of stopping at the liquor store. All of a sudden, you're ending your day with a jog instead of couchmelting with whiskey because you're stressed about work. The reason this works is something called the "habit loop":

Habits are a three-step loop -- the cue, the routine, the reward ... Rather, to change a habit, you must keep the old cue, and deliver the old reward, but insert a new routine. That's the rule: If you use the same cue, and provide the same reward, you can shift the routine and change the habit. Almost any behavior can be transformed if the cue and reward stay the same. (p. 62)

So instead of just trying to stop snacking at night, start chewing gum at that time or drinking a glass of cold water with lemon when you get the urge for mouth feel. Like that.

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Tip 3: Stop Beating Yourself Up. We Might All Be Dead If No One Had Habits.

One of the most surprising things to me about Duhigg's very well researched book was the science. Habits are apparently stored in the basal ganglia reptile brain and kick in all the time or we'd run screaming from trying to process all the information all the time. Almost everything you do is a habit. Mind: Blown. I know!

Habits, scientists say, emerge because the brain is constantly looking for ways to save effort. Left to its own devices, the brain will try to make almost any routine into a habit, because habits allow our minds to ramp down more often. This effort saving instinct is a huge advantage. An efficient brain requires less room, which makes for a small head, which makes childbirth easier and therefore causes fewer infant and mother deaths. An efficient brain also allows us to stop thinking constantly about basic behaviors, such as walking and choosing what to eat, so we can devote mental energy to inventing spears, irrigation systems, and eventually, airplanes and video games. (p. 18)

Yes, you totally read that right. You have a ton of habits so your head could fit through your mother's ... never mind.

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Tip 4: Realize You Can't Predict the Future.

Here is one of my worst habits: catastophizing. Catastrophizing takes you from the bad habit of wasting time worrying to the bad habit of alienating everyone around you. Not only am I positive I know exactly what is going to happen at all times, I'm certain it will be the worst-case scenario. This year I already ended up at the doctor once for what I thought was a stroke that turned out to be tennis elbow. (What? It was tingling and numb only on my left side!) It turns out I am actually quite bad at predicting the future, and not only is this habit of trying to predict it (and telling everyone around me how the scene might play out in a quavering voice) annoying, it also makes it impossible to reason with me when I'm hell-bent on doing it. If you do it, too, you've got to stop right now, because eventually no one will want to talk to you when you're down. This bad habit makes communication difficult at best and could ruin relationships at worst. From Conversation Transformation:

Think about people you know who express a lot of fear or anxiety, or who seem resigned to things not going their way. In your conversations with them, try to identify the specific predictions they have. If they don't state them directly, you might want to ask questions to get clarification. For instance, if your friend says, "I'm dreading my next meeting with my boss," you could ask, "Is there something in particular you're afraid he's going to say?" or "What are you worried will happen?" The goal of this questioning is not to teach the other person something but to increase your own understanding of what's going on. (p. 107)

I find this works on myself, too. Often I'll find myself buzzing with anxiety and not really understand why. Sometimes I can't find a root cause and assume it's chemical, but other times I realize I'm worried about my daughter staying home sick two days in a row because I'm sure it means I won't get my work done. Once I understand it's about my work and not about my concern she's going to need hospitalization, I can devise plans to keep her entertained so it all works out instead of wringing my hands and complaining to my husband, who is on a business trip and can do absolutely zippo about the situation from the boothill of Missouri.

(I'm writing this post on day two of my daughter home sick and asking me how much longer it will take me to finish working, and I can feel my blood pressure rising and a distinct desire to tell myself I'm going to get fired all because she is sick. See how easy that is?)

PS: I totally am not getting fired.

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Tip 5: Diagnose Your Habits to Make Them More Productive

Instead of telling yourself to just stop doing something, figure out first why you're doing it to see if you can meet that trigger need with something else pretty effortlessly. That way you'll feel satisfied instead of deprived when the real need you're looking to fill is being met.

For Duhigg, it was all about cookies. Eight pounds, actually, that he gained because of cookies. Every day at around 3:30 pm, he would go to the cafeteria at work, buy a cookie, and sit around talking to co-workers while eating it. He started looking for the cause by feeling the cookie trigger and doing something else instead, then writing down how he felt afterward and then again fifteen minutes later to see if he was sated by that alternate activity.

And why the fifteen-minute alarm? Because the point of these tests is to determine the reward you're craving. If, fifteen minutes after eating a donut, you still feel the urge to get up and go to the cafeteria, then your habit isn't motivated by a sugar craving. If, after gossiping at a colleague's desk, you sill want a cookie, then the need for human contact isn't what's driving your behavior ... By experimenting with different rewards, you can isolate what you are actually craving, which is essential in redesigning the habit. (p. 280)

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It all sounds so reasonable when you look at it that way.

So ... the habit I'm trying to change is staying up too late. I love to sleep, so I have no idea why I'm staying up until midnight. Well, yeah, I kind of do. It's parenthood.

You see, back when I was childless, I had this thing called "free time." I'd go to the gym after work, exercise for a full hour, come home, take a shower, make some food, eat in front of the television at nineish, and watch TV or talk to my husband or read or study (I was in grad school there for a long time) for hours and still get to bed by 10:30 or 11 pm. I did all the boring chore stuff on the weekends when I had ENTIRE DAYS of free time.

Now? I try to kick off from work between 5:30 and 6:30, eat dinner at an actual table with my husband and daughter, help her with her homework, supervise her nightly toilette and trade off with my husband reading with her, saying prayers, etc. Often that all takes until nine or even ten depending on how late we get the whole thing started and whether I fell asleep during the goodnight routine.

So I know I stay up too late because I have things I have to do, like laundry and cleaning and filing my taxes and work catch-up; and there are also things I want to do, like speaking to my husband and reading and watching television. If I give an hour to the things I have to do, I'm loathe to shorten the period for wants. I remember when I got my first full-time job and was so annoyed at the lack of free time I had. Then I got used to that and became a parent and holy wow I had a lot of free time when it was just the job.

That being that, I'm still constantly exhausted in the mornings, and it's got to stop. So I'm changing my habit of hitting one more show around 11 pm. My one more show is an act of rebellion, an attempt to treat myself to one last thing before I go to bed. I'm replacing my one more show with an extra-long shower with super hot water and tons of bubbles. The shower takes about fifteen minutes, whereas most shows I like are hour-long dramas. When 11 rolls around, I go take my shower and then after that I'm in the mood to crawl in bed. I smell good, I feel good, and my core body temp is probably a little higher, which is good for making you tired. So far, so good!

Are you trying to change any habits? Which ones?

For a more in-depth analysis of Duhigg's book, check out AV Flox's post on habits.

Rita Arens authors Surrender, Dorothy and is the editor of the award-winning parenting anthology Sleep is for the Weak. She is the senior editor for

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