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How to Change Habits

We all want to know what the best way is to change unwanted habits. Here’s some excellent advice from Charles Duhigg, author of The Power of Habit (Sarasota Herald-Tribune, 1/1/15, “Advice Goddess” by Amy Alkon, 61E).

Duhigg states that, “Habit is a choice we deliberately make at some point, and then stop thinking about, but continue doing.” Alkon explains that research cites three components of habit which Duhigg describes as a “CUE (a feeling that triggers behavior), the ROUTINE (the behavior itself), and the REWARD (some sort of payoff that tells your brain to repeat the behavior because it was enjoyable).”

I know what a habit is, you may be thinking, but how do I stop the ones I don’t want to do any more? Duhigg suggests “swapping out the middle step, the routine.” So, say you always eat a bag of chips while you’re watching the news waiting to make dinner. What are you really looking for in that bag of chips? Pleasure or a mood lift after a hard day’s work? What else would bring that? Instead of eating chips while watching the news, you could go through your mail or email, watch the news without chips but with your feet up and a pillow behind your head, play with the dog or cat, or flip through a magazine.

What you want to do is substitute one habit (deeply grooved in your brain) for another (to get it grooving). So, maybe you don’t watch the news at all right after work, but record it and play it back after dinner when you’re more relaxed. Or go for a walk or putter around the house or garden listening to the news with your earbuds. It doesn’t matter what you do as long as it feels pleasurable and rewarding and meets whatever need the behavior you want to change was meeting.

Sometimes mindless eating is done to relax. As Duhigg points out, however, sometimes what we seek is not chilling out but ramping up or “arousal.” In this case, find something to do that’s a challenge and geared to stir your passions. After a boring day at work, it’s fine that you want some sensory stimulation. Take a run with the dog or a quick bike ride. Watch a bit of a thriller on TV that you’ve recorded. Play a computer game that pits you against others or against your previous efforts. Just make sure to get the juices flowing. Duhigg advises that doing nothing and not replacing the unwanted habit will get you nowhere. You’re more than likely to succumb to doing what you’ve always done—such as mindless eating. You can break unwanted habits with a bit of know how and putting effort into doing something different. Then that becomes your new habit.