5 Steps to Changing any Habit

by | Jan 4, 2020

“INSANITY: DOING THE SAME THING OVER AND OVER AND EXPECTING DIFFERENT RESULTS.” ~ ALBERT EINSTEIN

If a person does the same thing over and over again, how can they get a different result? Imagine trying to lose weight without changing how we eat and exercise. If the habits of unhealthy eating and little physical activity continue, the result is the same, no weight loss. The same concept applies to relationships. If a person is not happy within their relationship, yet they choose to continue behaviors that contribute to the negativity of the relationship, then the results are predictable. The bottom line is this: Change must occur in order to obtain a new outcome.

Easier said, than done, right? People are unique and different, as are their patterns of behavior. People wrestle with addiction or overindulgence, others may struggle with communication in relationships, and others might struggle with poor food choices and inactivity. This begs the question, if we know certain things are not healthy, why do we continue to do them? The answer is classical conditioning, the simple science surrounding behavior and the brain. Our brains are full of nerve pathways, reinforced through our habits, which is the reason it takes time to make a change. In order to create new habits, we must reinforce the new neural connections with consistent behaviors. Through behavior psychology, we can make this desired change. With this said, regardless of the reason for the change, with a little self-awareness, science, and planning, it is possible.

Ok, enough chat about change. What are the steps?

1st step: Lovingly identify the behavior and change the script – Identify the behavior you wish to change. Once identified, use loving and gentle self-talk regarding the behavior. We are no longer justifying the harmful habit and are honestly bringing it to the forefront of our conscious. Changing our self-talk does not mean, beat oneself up for the poor choices but rather be compassionate and loving towards the self. Understanding the need to change behaviors is a crucial aspect of this step. I will use a current real-life example. I struggle with overeating during the evening hours, which is the behavior I want to change (1st Step).

  • 1st Step Example: I overeat in the evenings (Straight to the point without negative self-talk).

2nd step: Explore the cue which signals the behavior – Science teaches most behavioral cues fall into one of five categories, (1) location, (2) time, (3) emotional state, (4) other people, and (5) the precipitating action (Duhigg, 2012). Using my example lets explore this deeper.

  • 2nd Step Example: The location: living room, time of day: evening, the people: my family, the feeling: bored or stressed, and the action that preceded my behavior: watching TV.

3rd step: What is my negative habit satisfying (The reward)? – Often a negative behavior can be a signal something in life is off balance and is often a response to stress. Stressors can be debilitating, and often we offset the stress by implementing behaviors that serve some psychological, physical, or emotional purpose. Even though the habits are unhealthy, they are meeting a need. Using my same example, ways I might learn what my negative habit is telling me is to substitute an alternative behavior. Instead of eating in the evenings while watching TV with my husband, maybe I could go for a walk. In doing so, I may ask myself, did this satisfy my craving. If not, I may need to continue experimenting until I figure out what it is I need.

  • 3rd Step Example: I discovered I was mindlessly eating in front of the TV because when I watch TV, my brain relaxes. The cue: TV and mindless eating. The reward: brain relaxing and not overthinking.

4th step: Find a new external reward and stick with it until it becomes internal – Now that we have identified the cue (TV and mindless eating) and reward (brain relaxing), it is now time to incorporate the new desired habit (not overeating in the evenings), which satisfies the old reward (brain relaxing). Relying solely on will power to change does not work because it does not address the subconscious need for the habit you want to change.

  • 4th Step Example: The new desired habit is to implement exercise in the evenings, which relaxes me and is healthier than my old go-to habit.

5th step: Planning – Habits and behaviors begin with a choice until they become unconscious or automatic. Once we have identified the underlying cause for our negative behavior, along with what we are getting from it, then we must create a plan to reconstruct our behavior until the new desired behavior is automatic. Careful planning can assist in doing this. Additionally, we may want to include other options in our plan, like identifying and removing triggers, monitoring self-talk, and incorporate mindfulness activities.

    • 5th Step Example: If I am aware, my brain would like a little downtime in the evening hours. I plan to go for a walk around 6:00 every evening until this becomes my new habit.

Putting it into practice:

      • The behavior I want to change is:?
      • Through self-exploration, I know the cue for this behavior is:?
      • I have learned my negative behavior is satisfying my need (psychological, physical, or emotional purpose) for:?
      • My replacement behavior reward is?
      • My plan to implement behavior change is?
Step
Step 1. Identify Behavior and Change Script
Step 2. Explore the Cue
Step 3. What is the Habit Satisfying
Step 4. Reward Replacement
Step 5. Planning

References:

Duhigg, Charles. (2012) The power of habit: why we do what we do in life and business New York: Random House

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