Habits.Tips To Change Them Quickly
If you’re like most people, you have at least one trait or habit you’d like to change. Most bad habits – -those you know you’d be much better off without—represent something that stands in your way of success on the job, has some negative impact on your relationships, or may be negatively affecting your health.
Some habits even become sources of self-loathing: you constantly put yourself down for them and regard your lack of success in changing them as inexcusable weaknesses. So an additional negative by-product of that bad habit is that you may even think less of yourself for having it.
As we saw earlier, attitudes are thinking habits. Of course, they can be positive or negative. They can enrich our lives or be self-defeating. So can behavioral habits. Much of your success on the job is probably due to positive work habits that you formed over the years. How orderly you keep things is based on your habits, as is your tendency to be early or late, and even how you eat and sleep.
Negative habits, however, are the ones that seem to concern us the most. They result in self-defeating behavior, which includes anything you do, consciously or unconsciously, to get in your own way, to undermine yourself, or to sabotage your own goals. Habits are learned. That means they can be unlearned, and new ones can be relearned. With negative habits, the first step is to know the “enemy.” This means to identify the habit in detail and visualize what it would be like if you were able to overcome it. Perhaps you can start now by asking yourself exactly what it is that you would like to stop or start doing. Behind every habit that needs to be changed, there’s an attitude to be challenged or learned as well.
If you’re trying to stop smoking, undoubtedly you’ve heard that smoking is an addiction, and you can become chemically dependent on nicotine, but isn’t it really your attitude that perpetuates that habit—“I can’t stand it if I don’t have a cigarette,” or “I’ll never enjoy social events as much if I can’t be puffing away,” or “Certain activities aren’t as much fun unless I’m smoking while doing them”? That’s right. It’s that attitude we now know as low frustration tolerance that ultimately powers your habit of smoking.
Suppose you’re trying to lose weight. I can’t think of anyone I’ve ever met who’s complained about overeating who didn’t know that you gain a pound for every 3,500 calories you consume over and above what you burn up. Of course, there’s no shortage of diet books, so we also know it’s the amount and type of food you eat that determines not only your weight, but ultimately your health.
Let’s look at the attitudes that are usually connected with overeating: “I must have that piece of chocolate cake,” or “I deserve this pizza,” or “I’m powerless to resist something that’s put in front of me that I want, regardless of how much I’ll regret it later.” It’s possible and even likely that you tell yourself these things without even realizing it. Think of them as automatic thoughts.
So just as our habits occur automatically, so do the attitudes and thoughts behind them. In fact, you could probably even think of a number of attitudes you have and things you tell yourself about smoking or overeating that are quite unique. Your unwanted habit has probably operated for a long time, perhaps before you even realized it was problematic. For example, if it’s your habit to procrastinate, the first step is to acknowledge that you procrastinate. Then, when you do it, at least you’re doing it consciously instead of automatically.
This is often the hardest part of changing self-defeating habits, since they may have become so ingrained in your nature. In fact, we even refer to habits as being “second nature.” As self-defeating as they may be, there’s comfort in them, because they’re so familiar. I refer to this attitude as a comfortable state of discomfort. So as soon as you begin to change, you’ll probably experience some discomfort until the new, chosen way of being becomes as second nature as the habit that you’re trying to change.
Let’s look at some other common habits and the attitudes behind them. If you’re a crash-prone driver, perhaps it’s your attitude that “people should stay out of my way,” or “it would be terrible if I were five minutes late,” or “driving a car is so boring I can’t stand it, so I must get in there and hurry, even if the consequences of hurrying far outweigh any possible advantages.”
If you’re someone who habitually interrupts others, perhaps it’s because you’re telling yourself, “What I have to say is much more important,” or “If I’m not being listened to, then I’m not being approved of,” or “I deserve to be paid attention to and anyone who doesn’t has committed an unforgivable sin.” The habits of procrastination or failing to eliminate clutter usually have behind them the attitude that “This is too overwhelming,” or “Sure, I’ll be sorry later on, but for right now, it feels so good to be doing something other than that dreaded task.”
Some habits are simply expressions of anxiety, such as fidgeting, chewing pencils, tics, and twitches. Many habits are also blind spots—things that we do without even realizing it, but which are very noticeable to others. Even with blind spots, usually you can recognize enough benefit to see how it’s to your advantage to change.
Our blind spots are, in fact, those parts of ourselves that are very obvious to other people but which we ourselves may not be aware of. The classical example is bad breath. It often takes someone else literally close to us to point out something we should attend to but may never be able to recognize on our own. Let me go back to a question I asked at the beginning: when it comes to habits, what have you identified that’s in your best interest to stop or start doing now?
Strategies to Change Bad Habits
To change a bad habit, first identify it in as much detail as possible. What thoughts reinforce it? What are you telling yourself that justifies it? Why do you even want to change it at this time? This why question is important, because without clearly understanding your motivation, change probably won’t happen. When did it begin? Is there any particular person, place, or thing that triggers it? Are you ready to make the commitment to do whatever is necessary to break this habit?
Answer all of these questions for each habit that you would like to break. Knowing what you’re dealing with in that amount of detail is a major share of the battle. How would things be more or less different if you were successful in changing this habit? If your goal is to stop smoking, how would your life be more difficult without the crutch of cigarettes? Imagine the ideal situation of giving up your habit. You may want to close your eyes and visualize how you would feel if you were actually able to become free of it.
- Try to savor the positive feeling that comes from the fantasy of being without the bad habit. You may want to write down the images that come up, since they stimulate the feeling that is what you’re striving for. When you can conjure up a positive image in your mind, you’ve established the power to give yourself a tremendous amount of reinforcement when you’re facing the inevitable but temporary discomfort of change.
- If you’re trying to lose weight, imagine yourself at your ideal weight as though being overweight were a thing of the past, and you were feeling the rewards of your hard work in breaking bad eating habits right now. If you’re trying to stop procrastinating on a project, imagine yourself having completed that project and reaping all the rewards both of finishing it and putting an end to your procrastination.
The next step is to develop a plan of attack. Use all the wisdom that’s at your disposal to strategize how you can best effect this change. For overeating, this step involves planning your diet, establishing an allowable number of calories, and visualizing your progress for the first few crucial days and weeks. Imagine yourself advising someone else on the logistics of changing their eating habits. If you find this difficult, you may wish to seek advice at this point or do some reading on the subject. This is the technical part of the task. Point A was identifying the habit; Point B was the goal.
What you’re doing now is drawing the shortest possible line between those two points. Sometimes it’s important to break your plan of attack into small, manageable parts. For instance, you may be procrastinating on a project because you see it as overwhelming. But if you look at it as a series of smaller steps, each of which you can take without feeling overwhelmed, your attitude toward the entire project may prompt you to pleasantly feel that it’s much more doable.
- To stop smoking, come up with a plan to go cold turkey or taper off gradually. Some people find various types of nicotine substitutes helpful, while others plan stopping at a time when they’re likely to be under much less stress, such as during a vacation or a long weekend. Make an ironclad commitment to yourself to follow your plan. Make sure to build in time factors, and then announce it to all the people around you who can act as sources of support.
Support is, for many, the most important step in changing a difficult habit. For some people, this might be a formal self-help group, while for others just having someone you could turn to during periods of frustration and cravings can make success much more attainable. Support is often the power tool that will help you to get past those difficult moments between the time when you’ve given up the self-defeating behavior and the time when change becomes automatic and second nature.
- You may also want to write up a behavioral contract specifying how you intend to attack your habit each day, and if you live up to it, how to reward yourself, such as buying yourself a small gift or doing something you enjoy but don’t ordinarily take time out for.
- Sometimes giving yourself rewards, which we call positive contingencies, won’t quite do the job. That’s where negative contingencies, often a stronger source of motivation, come into play. A negative contingency is some form of punishment that you subject yourself to should you go backward. They’re very commonly used as part of habit-breaking strategies. They could be as simple as doing something you don’t enjoy, such as cleaning your house, staying at home on a night when you would ordinarily be going to a pleasurable event or a social activity, or even giving money to a cause that you thoroughly disbelieve in.
- Positive and negative contingencies are custom-designed. I once had a client who had been through many forms of treatment in just about every kind of self-help group there is for losing weight. She was about fifty pounds overweight and claimed that she was powerless to stay within her chosen diet. After much discussion, we came up with a very effective negative contingency. It seemed that there was someone she felt very unattracted to who kept calling her up for a date and whom she was constantly turning down.
She wrote this person a love letter and even put a stamp on it. We agreed that I would hold the letter and that the first time she did not stay within her weight plan, she and I would walk to the mailbox together and mail it. Needless to say, the thought of this individual receiving a love letter from her was so intimidating that for the first time in her life, she shed weight in a way that actually made me concerned for her health!
The fact of the matter is you can do it. You need only to find what positively or negatively motivates you. That is the role of contingencies. You may want to take a few minutes now to think about what some contingencies of your own, both positive and negative, may work best for you, to get the job done.
With all of this, it’s still important to allow yourself a margin of error. If you slip or relapse, learn to forgive yourself again and again. It’s that self-acceptance that will empower you to believe you can ultimately succeed, and that’s the attitude that will help you to succeed the next time.
We are all fallible. This is a fact to be used not as an excuse, but as a reassurance when you’ve done your best and failed or simply not gotten the results you wanted. If you’re still having difficulty, think about secondary gains. They are the reasons underneath the surface that keep your self-defeating behavior in place. Sometimes these are also called higher-order problems.
For example, if you’re having difficulty giving up smoking, it could be that you literally use cigarettes as a smokescreen. With your smokescreen removed, you may be temporarily much more uncomfortable relating to people in certain social situations. Somebody once told me that he never worried about his future until he stopped smoking, because he didn’t think he’d be around very long. He needed to come to grips with the idea of planning for a long life before he could stop smoking.
Many people who fail to stay on diets really fear other issues that losing weight may force them to face, such as losing the excuse to avoid meeting potential love partners or dealing with the intimacy that could follow.
One obese married man whose weight was jeopardizing his health told me that if he were to lose the weight he needed to lose, he feared that he would be seen as attractive by other women. New options would tempt him to leave his marriage, which at the time was not working well. However, once the issues in his marriage were addressed, he was able to lose the weight. Scenarios like this are not uncommon!
Allow yourself a certain amount of anxiety, and don’t let that set you on a backward course. Listen to some of the many audio programs and countless books that deal with problems such as low frustration tolerance, perfectionism, stress, and anxiety. Changing a habit, especially a long-standing one, can trigger just about every emotion and form of stress known to humankind, but the good news is nothing can defeat you except your own tendency to declare yourself powerless and give up. This is one self-defeating attitude that is totally within your power to control.
A major part of changing your unwanted habits is acknowledging the payoff you’re getting for continuing to have them. Once that is eliminated and you’ve identified the habits, established goals, developed a plan of attack, and gotten the support you need, you’ll be amazed at how much power you have over things you may have thought were out of your control. And most importantly, once you master this attitude, you can apply it to any area of your life.
Positive Attitude Training
How to Be an Unshakable Optimist
Michael S. Broder, Ph.D.
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