This is the third, and probably last for now, in a series of posts on habits. The last post I focused on creating new habits, and how to make them sticky. This one is about breaking a habit, or, to stay with the same theme, unsticking a habit.
This is far more complex because un-learning something involves more analysis and more steps than simply doing something new.
Primarily, to un-stick a habit, you first have to hack it. You have to investigate the eco-system of behaviors surrounding the habit. You have to do a little sleuthing to decide, who is the real culprit? It’s not always the habit that’s the bad guy. Here are three important things to consider before trying to stop a habit:
1. Is the habit the real habit? Some habits are symptoms of other habits. For instance, a friend of mine recently told me she was gaining weight because she was overeating. When I asked her about the eating, she said she mindlessly snacked on stuff every afternoon. Asking about the habit, and when, how, where it occurs is very important. It’s similar to what we talked about in the last post, about preparing the soil to make a new habit stick. This is the looking at the eco-system of the habit, and deciding where the real “culprit” lies.
With her snacking, it turned out she was tired and snacked for more energy. A clue was the fact that it always happened at the same time every day, between around 4-5 pm. If she had a real over eating problem, it would have been more widespread and random – huge portions, or second helpings (which she never did) snacking at night after dinner (which she also didn’t do), or keeping chips or candy in the car (again, which she didn’t do), etc. It was always in the afternoon, and was always something sweet. It was in fact, a blood sugar dip, and when my friend looked into it, she realized that she wasn’t eating enough throughout the day. She started eating several smaller meals every 3-4 hours, and the snacking immediately stopped. She didn’t have to stop snacking. She actually had to eat more.
This is also known as removing the trigger. The point is, you have to look at the eco-system the habit lives in to find the trigger. What is the source, and can I alter it?
2. Build a better habit. Some habits are trying to do the right thing, but in the wrong way. This is the purposive, or teleological idea behind habits. Here’s an example. I have to confess that I have a spider solitaire habit that drives me crazy. It only comes up when I’m working on a difficult writing project. Everything else – email, designing trainings or workshops, admin or bookkeeping – I don’t think about it. Like with my friend’s snacking , it’s very context specific. The harder the writing is, the worse it is. What I’ve discovered is that it is an attempt to relax my intense focus, and allow my mind to, well, breathe a bit. I get so narrowly focused on something, that I lose the bigger picture. The solitaire (sort of) widens my focus. But it really doesn’t. It just feels like it does. So, what I try to do is to get up, take a breath, walk around, and even talk out loud to myself about where I feel stuck…. I try to replicate in other ways what the solitaire (sort of) provides.
3. Stop the habit but keep its essence. This is one of my favorite stories. A friend of mine years ago decided to stop drinking coffee. She went cold turkey and got a terrible headache. But even worse, she got really depressed. She tried her best to stick with it, but was just miserable. The headache went away, but not the depressed mood. She realized that coffee made her, well, happy. She had a tendency to wake up grumpy and depressed, and coffee was the perfect antidote to that. Now, in a world without coffee, grumpiness ruled her day. Looking at it teleologically, she decided that she would go off coffee, but in a ‘happier’ way ( a coffee-like way!) than cold turkey. So, she replaced the amount of coffee in her cup with milk, by one tablespoon per day with milk. I kid you not. It took her about 9 months, but she did it. She stopped her caffeine addiction but even more, she did it without suffering. Or, you could say that she did it the ‘coffee’ way. She dropped coffee by becoming more coffee like.
Stopping a habit is hard, and figuring out if you’re stopping the right thing if a good first step. There’ are more tips and strategies that work – what have you found helpful?