Practicing Well: Want to get rid of a bad habit? Try creating a good one instead
By Meri Althauser
A Twitter user once told me (actually, the entire internet):
“All my plans for the future involve me waking up tomorrow with a sudden sense of discipline and adherence to routine that I have never displayed even once in my life.” -@sometwitteruserontheinternetidk
Anyone relate? Now that we’ve given 30 (I don’t know actually how many) tips on stress management over the past year, how do we actually follow through?! This brings us to my favorite topic, creating habits.
First things first: willpower and discipline alone do not work. Whoever told us all about those things lied! This is because when we’re trying to adopt a new habit or get rid of an unhelpful habit, we start off believing we are NOT the type of person who can accomplish that goal. For example, if I want to stop smoking, I already believe with all of my heart that I am a smoker. Or conversely, I’m already a failure at being a non-smoker. So the action of skipping a cigarette is not only difficult in its own right, the action goes against the grain of who I believe I am. I simply don’t have enough evidence to believe I can be a non-smoker until I’ve skipped many, many cigarettes. If we’re keeping score, I have years of tallies on the board where I smoked, and only one or two tallies on the side showing I don’t smoke. So, do we just use discipline and willpower until there are enough tallies on the “non-smoking” side that we believe it’s true?
Probably not successfully!
It’s too much to ask to force ourselves to make it to that finish line. But there are many tools to help form a new habit that will help you see the evidence faster and get points up on that board more quickly. Here are my favorite tips.
1) Focus on a VITAL behavior, rather than the big picture goal. This is an upstream behavior that either prevents you from, or ensures you can, complete your goal. If my goal is to go to the gym, the vital behavior I actually need to focus on is clearing my calendar in the 30 minutes before I want to leave so I don’t get hijacked.
2) Make a bad habit harder by creating friction between you and the thing you don’t want to do. For example, if I want to drink less, maybe I keep my drinks warm in the garage so I have to wait for one to cool before I can drink it. Don’t have things you don’t want to eat in the house or hide them from yourself. (Which leads to a great bonus: finding hidden candy that you forgot about!!)
3) Make good habits easier by stacking them together with things you already do. For example, if you’d never skip brushing your teeth, add the habit you’re trying to form when you brush your teeth. Whenever I brush my teeth, I also [write in my gratitude journal, send a thank you note, etc.].
4) One of my favorites: just start. Did you know you don’t have to get an A plus? Throw out the old advice that you shouldn’t do something if you’re not going to do it well. You will survive if you do it badly, so just start! The benefits of starting are two-fold. First, if you just start in on something you don’t want to do (e.g. I don’t want to do the dishes. I’ll just start them though…) it’s likely you’ll just bite the bullet and finish. Second, you’ll start to realize that small starts and stops are OK and that you haven’t failed. When I was a trainer, I heard all the time that “I missed all of last week, so I’ve already failed, I won’t be back.” But as it turns out, if you screw up this week, you can totally just try again next week!! You can keep adding tallies to the new habit scorecard even if you skip a week, just start up again.
5) Don’t go it alone. Align at least four things in your environment to help you stick with it. When we work with folks in need of substance abuse treatment, we tell them that if they go back to the same friends, environment, things, and cues they were subject to before getting sober, they are setting themselves up for failure. All of these environmental cues can be used for good! These cues include physical reminders: calendar reminders, alarms, physically putting your gym clothes next to your bed so you step on them, etc. They include rewards: I’ll reward myself with a massage, night out, or a little shopping. And punishments: pull out a $100 bill and put it on your dresser. If you skip your work out, rip it up, it works! And last, accountability and solidarity from your friends. When you tell your friend your goal and have them check on you, that’s accountability. When your friend joins you in your goal (and their own $100 bill to rip up) that’s solidarity. Pick at least four of these environmental supports and you’ll be well on your way to success!
If you take the time to focus on some of these strategies, you’ll start to put up points on your scorecard faster and more easily, and you’ll be focused on the process instead giving yourself a pass/fail on your goal.
Meri Althauser is an attorney of over 10 years practicing family law and mediation in Missoula. Her practice focuses on collaboration and solution-finding for her clients and their families. She also offers consulting services in workplace wellness, with a certification as a Workplace Wellness Specialist through the National Wellness Institute and as a Resilience and Thriving Facilitator through Organizational Wellness and Learning Systems.