It seems impossible to break habits. It took me at least 5 attempts to quit smoking and, while I haven’t had a cigarette in over 12 years, I’m never really sure I’ve “quit” for good. It’s like the boogie man, you just never know when it will come out of the shadows. It turns out there is a very good reason for this. I just read Dr. Jeremy Dean’s book “Making Habits. Breaking Habits” and it illustrates why breaking habits is so much more difficult than making new habits.
First of all, in the case of smoking, you are trying to break two parts of the habit. One part of the habit is the delivery of nicotine to your body and the other part are the cues that cause you to want a cigarette. I know for me, I always started smoking again in either a social situation such as a bar (back in the dark ages when you could actually smoke in bars) or standing in line for a movie (back in the dark ages when you could smoke in public; ). Or talk with anyone who’s quit, and I’m sure they can spout off an extensive list of cues – a cup of coffee, a conversation, a phone call, driving in the car. It’s crazy.
Second, it’s really impossible to break the neural pathway that created that habit. Think of the habit as the Grand Canyon in your brain and you are trying to divert the Colorado River towards Michigan. Ain’t gonna happen. We are on auto pilot most of the day. When was the last time you remembered your drive to work? Your brain is saving resources by having you on auto pilot most of the day. That includes habits like smoking. So the answer is to create new habits. Leave the Grand Canyon alone and start a little trickle of water elsewhere.
Here are some ways to do that:
1. 21 days. Apparently, 21 days is an unproven theory for beating or changing a habit. And if you think about it, it really doesn’t make sense. First of all something as complex as quitting smoking when there are two habits to break (the physical nicotine and psychological habit) is not something that’s magically going to go away if you survive not smoking for 21 days. It’s a fallacy. The other thing is that everyone is wired differently. There have been several studies to test the 21 day theory and some folks developed a new habit after 20 days and others took up to 6 months. Don’t bank on the 21 day theory. But there’s nothing wrong with it if it works for you!
2. Notice. If you want to break an old habit like biting your nails or a tic of some kind notice when you feel compelled to indulge. Awareness is the key. You need to understand what triggers the behavior. It’s like when I put my sneakers on in the morning, my dog immediately thinks we are going for a walk. There is a cause and effect. You need to notice the cause or enlist someone else to help you bring your awareness to the particular tic. I noticed that I was eating both my breakfast and lunch in front of the computer. I had no memory of eating which frequently causes me to eat more later. I needed to notice that habit before I can even begin to change it.
3. Response. Dr. Dean outlines “Competing Response Training” in his book. This type of training is called Habit Reversal Training (HRT) and is used for tics, nail biting and Tourette’s. This means finding an opposite response. So if you have a tic of tightening your left shoulder, learn to respond with the opposite of perhaps lengthening your neck on your right side. Biting your finger nails? Perhaps lengthen your fingers on your lap. Replacing a habit is much more likely than stopping the old. If you smoke, start chewing gum. I can remember when I first quit smoking that I would bring my fingers to my lips and tap it on my lips. Sort of a pantomime smoking response. Figure out a different response.
4. Small. Start small. Break big habits down into smaller bites. When I changed my eating habits, I started with breakfast on the weekends. I sat at my kitchen table. After a week, I started eating every breakfast at the table. The week after that, I started eating lunch at the table on the weekends. Finally, now I eat every meal at a table. This is especially true with exercise. If you have never run before, the worst thing you could do is go run 5 miles. You will get cramped up and never want to put your sneakers on again. Run for 10 minutes or 5 minutes or 1 minute. Build from there over several weeks or months. Having a coach can help you chunk big things into small steps email me to get started (email@example.com). Start small; finish big
5. Early. If possible, start early in the day because that’s when your willpower is the strongest. I have been meditating for over two years now. I always meditate in the morning. Frequently it’s recommended to meditate twice a day. I have never been able to pull off meditating in the evening. After 7 PM, I’m pretty zoned out and depleted. I know an evening meditation might be helpful but alas, I have no willpower left to pull it off. Start a new habit as early in the day as possible. You may be able to shift it later but start with the morning.
6. Visualize completely. Dr. Dean points out that in test groups those who visualize both the hard work and the success both, in the end do much better. So don’t just visualize the “A” on the test. Visualize studying, reading and gaining knowledge as well as the “A” on the test. Studies have shown a Planning Fallacy as well. We tend to underestimate how much time it will take to accomplish a task like making a cake, setting up the new spreadsheet or in writing this blog post (really…I thought I would have this done an hour ago). But when other outside observers predict how long something will take, they are much more accurate and realistic. So make sure you have the complete picture before embarking and get some outside opinions as well. Visualize the goal completely.
7. Layering. Layer one simple habit on top of another. I have to admit that I have never flossed my teeth on a regular basis. I get my teeth cleaned every six months and the dental hygienist always recommends flossing. I’ve purchased all manner of flossing paraphernalia to no avail. So this last cleaning about three weeks ago, I decided to purchase a water pik. I’ve been water “flossing” my teeth every evening ever since. Part of it is that the machine is sitting there by the sink so I’ve set up the environment for success but it’s part of my evening ritual of teeth brushing, medication taking, and face washing. It’s just one more thing in the evening ritual. Tag the new habit onto something else and you are more likely to accomplish it. Layer your habits.
So you are probably wondering how I eventually quit smoking. It was a combination of two things. My husband (who was an ex smoker) would say to me as I headed out to the front porch for a cigarette “going to suck your thumb?” Wow. That’s what I was doing. Something a five year old would do. The second thing was my six year old son coming out, while I was smoking on the front porch, and saying “I can’t wait to grow up and smoke just like you”. I quit within the week. Social pressure is probably the biggest influence for those really hard habits to break. So find some support as you embark on those big gnarly habits.
What habit are you trying to make or break?