It’s that time and everyone is thinking of New Year’s Resolutions. You’re itching to get rid of that bad habit right now, but you want a way of improving your chances of keeping your New Year’s Resolution, so consider this: think it through. I know you have heard that AA saying “Baby Steps” before…but sticking to a habit change is not trying to be perfect right out of the gate. So before you start trying to change a habit, consider thinking about it thoroughly for a month or two. First, list every reason you want to stop, figuring out what triggers or cues you react to, what routine you fall into as a result of that trigger and experiment with the types of rewards you are looking for from that habit. Write down and record every time you catch yourself doing the habit, and soon a pattern will appear. Maybe checking out a few twelve step programs or a therapy group can give you an idea of outside support options. You will be better prepared to conquer the habit after processing it during the next few weeks.
2. Identify your triggers
By doing this review you will see you do the same behaviors, in the same place, at the same time. If at 3:00, you go on a smoke break in your car, the time and the car itself can become a trigger (or cues as Charles Duhigg author of The Power of Habit calls them). These actions can become a cue to start a habit —sometimes these cues are very subtle to notice. As AA says “Avoid People, Places and Things.” Identify and understand your triggers. These triggers fall into one of the following five categories:
- Location, a bar, your ex-girlfriend’s neighborhood, a bakery
- Time, 3:00, happy hour, visiting family
- Emotional State, Hungry, angry, lonely or tired
- Other People, the ex, your Mom, Dad or that annoying co-worker
- An immediately preceding action, or what happened just before you picked up that joint? An argument with your spouse? Anticipating that your boss will ream your butt at work this morning for being late? Packing the car to see the folks for the holidays?
3. Delayed Gratification and Contingency Management
There are some other simple psychological tricks you can employ as well, such as delayed gratification and contingency management. The 20-Second Rule is an example of delayed gratification: Make bad habits take 20 seconds longer to start. For example, move junk food to the back of the pantry, or leave the credit cards at home so you don’t over spend on lunch. A program sister suggests a Rule of Five, delaying the behavior until you have 5 glasses of water, or walk for 5 minutes or call five 12 step program people. Consider rewarding yourself for not relapsing, it’s called contingency management. Suggest this to yourself: if I don’t act out for 60 days, I can lead the Sunday night 12 step meeting or if I don’t drink now, later tonight, my wife and I can be intimate, or if I don’t use this week my IOP counselor will give me a free lunch coupon for the Olive Garden.
4. Reframe that habit thought
Even if we hate the habit we’re doing, like smoking or over eating, we tend to continue doing it because it provides us with some sort of satisfaction or psychological reward. Catch yourself thinking any positive thoughts or feelings about your bad habits (like: if I have a drink, I will not feel so nervous around my in-laws) and reframe these thoughts to remind you of the negative aspects of your habits. Maybe think this thought instead, “One drink is too many and a thousand drinks is not enough.” That is reframing the habit thought.
5. Willpower is in limited supply
Research has shown that we don’t have unlimited willpower (it didn’t take scholarly research to confirm this for you!) The truth is we’re constantly exercising willpower and self-control. The problem is that willpower is like a muscle, capable of fatigue and a muscle can’t be flexed forever. Researchers placed some study participants in situations in which they had to practice self-control—like not eating chocolate-chip cookies in front of them. While another group could eat as many cookies as they wanted. Then both groups were given a second test that required self-control.
The results? The group that had to resist the cookies did not perform as well on the second task. The group that was allowed to eat as many cookies they wanted, excelled at this second self-control test. The conclusion was that those who had to exert more willpower in the first task exhausted their willpower strength, and were unable to exert the self-control needed for the second task.
Just place yourself in a similar situation, think of you controlling yourself from strangling your self-absorbed-narcissistic colleague during a staff meeting, then around to 3:00, a typical smoke break time for you, you are triggered. You want to not smoke, but low and behold, a cigarette seems like just the reward you need.
6. Make a plan for relapses
Chances are you’re going to have bad days. Setbacks are normal and we should expect them. Have a plan to get back on track. Recovery coaches call this a relapse prevention plan (click here to link to Mary Ellen Copeland’s WRAP Plan). Coaches have their clients write a relapse prevention plan directly after a slip as a way to understand what happened and how to avoid it next time.
7. Harm Reduction Option
Every recovery coach anticipates a relapse, they acknowledge it will happen and attach no shame or guilt to a slip. Often, choosing an action based on Harm Reduction, (which is most often recognized as distributing clean needles to intravenous drug users to reduce HIV infection) is a good alternative. Some Harm Reduction ideas are: smoke a cigarette instead of a blasting a whole stick, limit yourself to buying a lottery ticket instead of logging on to a gambling web site or eat a cup of fruit yogurt instead of a chocolate chip cookie.
8. Change takes a village
With making a resolution to change, don’t attach it to the ever failing New Year’s Resolution. Attach it to a positive change within you. Let people know about it. Ask for help, even if it is a nagging wife or over- bearing parent. Better yet, join a 12 step group. Research shows change happens when you have support from others.
9. Make a Plan
Once you have figured out your ‘habit loop’, your cues/triggers, the routine you use, and the reward you expect, you can begin to shift your behavior. All you need is a plan. Open your-self up for improved, healthier routines; such as meditation, an afternoon walk, a talk with a co-worker or new way to drive home. These will become very good sources of generating your rewards and within 30, 60 or 90 days it will become a habit. Just give it time and
10. Succeed keeping your New Year’s Resolution! Don’t give up!
Special thanks to Charles Duhigg author of The Power of Habit for supplying all of this excellent information on changing a habit And Calvin and Hobbes for making fun of it!