How can you change habits that you've indulged in for years (or even decades)? Is spending $5 a day on a grande Starbucks caramel macchiato your hard habit to break? Or is it gnawing on your fingernails?
To learn how to break a habit, Family Goes Strong talked with psychologist Jeremy Dean, author of Making Habits, Breaking Habits: Why We Do Things, Why We Don't, and How to Make Any Change Stick. Excerpts:
Why is it so hard to stick to New Year's resolutions?
Habits operate unconsciously. It's very difficult to change something we're not aware we're doing in the first place. We don't know what we're doing.
Do you make New Year's resolutions?
I don't normally.
Because they're so hard to keep?
That's one reason. The other thing about New Year's resolutions is they have built into them this idea that you're going to transform yourself, and it's only going to be once a year. "I'm going to be a new person on January 1." It's not going to happen. It's very hard to change some aspects of yourself. It takes some effort and you have to start relatively small. Make a New Year's resolution, but maybe a small one, and have a February resolution as well.
What happens is a resolution is very general – like "lose weight." What's the best way to break a habit like eating too much?
What helps people [is to] make very specific plans – psychologists call them implementation intentions.
So you wouldn't just say, "I resolve to lose weight"?
That could be either something to do with exercise or healthy eating. Say you want to think, "I'll just start with my snacking first between meals. If I'm hungry between meals, then I will eat an apple." You're making a really specific plan about a situation, which is when you feel hungry between meals. You're trying to make that link strong in your mind.
How long does it take until going to the gym or practicing an instrument every day becomes automatic? Or does it simply depend on how hard or easy the goal is?
At University College London, they had people doing a variety of habits. One person was trying to drink a glass of water after breakfast, and that took a couple weeks. Another person was trying to do some pushups or sit-ups. That wasn't by the end of the study, and the study lasted a couple months.
Why was it so tough to make the exercises a routine?
There are two factors. How hard is the habit? And what kind of person are you? Some people seem to have much more control over themselves. Also, it probably depends quite a lot on what kind of techniques you use to engrain the habit.
So how do you make yourself do daily pushups?
You've got to have a motivation for any habit you're trying to engrain. You've got to want it. Visualization is important. One of the techniques is thinking about the positive aspects of the habit you want to engrain.
So you should think about looking good in a bathing suit at the beach?
That would work. Also thinking about the negative aspects you might have been doing otherwise — watching television or being lazy. You're trying to push yourself away from the old habit.
What's the best way to stop smoking and drinking?
Those are the hardest habits to break. There's some research to suggest that only 10 percent of people who try to give up smoking actually manage it, which is showing how difficult it is to give up. You're actually fighting two habits. You're fighting a chemical habit: you're trying to fight against the addiction to nicotine and what it's doing to your body and brain. On top of that physical habit, you're also battling this behavioral habit. What do you do with your hands? For the behavior habit, you've got to find something you can replace your old smoking with. Also think about ways, types of situations that will set off your smoking and ways you can avoid those situations or change your responsiveness.
Many smokers worry about gaining weight if they kick the habit. What can you suggest to help them?
If that is something that goes through your mind, you need to psychologically set something against that. The problem is I might put on weight, but on the other side, my teeth don't look good. They're yellow, and my skin looks older because I'm smoking. After the age of 35, if you give up smoking, you'll gain a certain amount in life expectancy.
Are you advocating new month's resolutions instead of New Year's resolutions?
Whatever suits. The main thing is to chop up your big resolution to change. Try to do one. Once you've engrained to a new habit, try another one. You gain confidence when you can get one down. You can build on that confidence.
How do you stop eating a giant cookie after work?
One of the mistakes people make is to try to suppress a habit. "I've got to avoid this or stop doing that." What the research finds is that when people try to suppress things, they tend to come back even stronger. You want to replace it with something else.
So you'd replace the big cookie with a big stalk of celery?
It seems as though the big resolutions are to lose weight and stop smoking and drinking. Anything that can help with all of them?
There are some little tricks you can use for all these. One typical thing is self-control. What happens when you're tempted, and you feel like you're weak and need a smoke or a drink or the cake, possibly at the same time?! There's one little thing you can do, which is self-affirmation. You just try to think about the things that are important to you in life. You might think about your family or your partner. You think about something that's inportant to you. This can provide you a little boost in self-control.
Should you think about reducing your risk of a heart attack?
It doesn't have to be logical like that.
Are you trying to make any changes yourself?
Flossing. I've kind of struggled with flossing for years and only managed to get up to a couple of times a week. One of the things I was doing was I was flossing in the evening. Your self-control tends to be a bit weaker in the evening. I thought maybe I would do it in the morning, and I would do it before brushing, when you get that nice feeling. It just took two or three weeks, and I'm now a seven-days-a-week flosser.
How does age make it harder or easier to quit?
It can be. The more you repeat things, the stronger the habit gets. As you get older, you do get stuck in your routines a little bit. One of the things about getting older is you discover the things that you like and the things that you don't. The things that you do like — you can make changes. I'm into cycling. A danger is to take the same route every day, and listen to the same music. I make sure I listen to different types of music or vary my route.
What if you're happy with same route?
When something is a habit, generally the pleasure from the experience tends to get less, to get lower and lower. What's happening is it gets more automatic, so you're paying less attention to what you're doing. When you're performing a habit, you tend to be worrying about things. You're better to be concentrating on what you're doing right now, something you enjoy. It's worth experimenting with. I'm not talking about giving up running or making a big change. I'm saying change the music.
So you should add variety to any habit – say, add a different flavor of syrup to your coffee?
Absolutely. It doesn't hurt to experiment. You can't tell people to change if they don't want to. I'm an Englishman — tea for me. I do like to try different tea bags and water filters, different cups and teapots. I don't think it could hurt you to make these little changes. It never hurts to give these little tweaks.
What about trying to get someone else in your family to change habits?
It's so hard even if you want to change yourself, and you're absolutely motivated. Getting other people to change — wow! Psychologists have been trying to do this for years — change other people. People say that they will change, and they intend to. You can kind of convince your partner that it's a good idea to change. But then people go back to their real lives, and they slip back into their old habits. People don't realize what they're doing. What you can do for your partner is to point out the behavior to them, as nicely as you can. "Did you notice that you're doing it again?" [Say it] kind of neutrally. Noticing a habit is definitely the first step toward changing.
Should you say, "I notice you keep eating late at night"?
It depends on your personality how they would take it. As soon as you start attacking [people], they're even less likely to take these things on board.
What about a spouse who is always on the computer?
The best option is to provide some alternative activity to the bad habit. If someone's on the internet all the time, you'd say, "Let's do something together." With eating, you could do the same thing. "Why don't we both have a low-calorie drink together — a nice cup of tea?" That's the English solution to everything!
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