Why You Can’t Make That Habit Stick (Part Three)
As you work to change your habits you’ll find that it’s incredibly easy to backslide into old patterns of behavior you wish you could move away from. We talked earlier about how wishful thinking makes habit change hard (and how another root problem is that you don’t really want to give up the payoff of your bad habits).
But if you haven’t been able to change that bad habit into a good one, I’ll bet that there’s another force at work:
Painful Truth #3: If you try to change a habit in a vacuum, you’re screwed.
What a lot of people do when they want to break a habit is they decide something like “I’m going to stop doing X:”
“I’m going to stop drinking caffeine.”
“I’m going to stop smoking.”
“I’m going to stop wasting money.”
These are all great ideas for habit change, but the problem comes when it’s time to face the reality that stopping something can be pretty damned difficult. Everything’s fine for a few days, but then the cravings to slip back into the old patterns of behavior begin – or worse yet, a new, similarly destructive pattern rises up to replace it.
Sure, you may stop smoking, but you turn to eat more to compensate and pack on the pounds (or if you’re like me, you cut out the soda and coffee and then experience massive sweets cravings).
Or maybe you just binge after a while – you try not to waste money for a few weeks, and then make a bunch of really stupid, pointless purchases to compensate. We’ve all done it.
Sometimes it seems like the mental energy you put into resisting that bad habit builds up until it can’t be contained anymore, and then you find yourself feeling like a fool for having backtracked on your journey to a better life.
And there’s a reason for that: it’s true.
I’m not calling you a fool, but you may be doing something foolish …
Here’s the problem: if you just try to stop doing something, it becomes a battle of wills between your own deeply established patterns of behavior and this new idea that you’re going to stop it. Nine out of ten times, the wimpy newcomer idea is going to get trounced because its strategy is foolish.
Trying to “stop” a pattern by sheer willpower is not a strategy. But gradually conditioning a new, enjoyable behavior is – and it works.
The problem most people have with habit change is they want to stop doing something that gives them a comforting, familiar payoff and they don’t know what to replace it with. There’s this big vacuum of “what do I do instead?” and the answer is usually “I dunno” or it’s something that’s less than enjoyable.
You want to stop eating junk food and you don’t know what else to eat, so you backslide. Or you tell yourself you’ll eat bran and broccoli instead, and you backslide. And you feel foolish (because your approach is foolish).
What you need to do here is replace the bad habit you have now with a more enjoyable alternative – something that has a payoff that makes you actually feel good. That’s how you build up a new pattern of behavior that serves you.
Essentially, you focus on the new payoff – not the pain of habit change – and it becomes easier.
Every time I quit caffeine (because all too often I got stupid and relapsed), I knew I was a total soda hound and I knew I’d think the water was plain and boring. Recipe for failure. I was conditioned to that sweet, carbonated experience first thing in the morning.
So each time I quit, I’d stock up on naturally flavored seltzer water to drink instead of soda. It took a while to get used to the taste (it stings!) but it satisfied the carbonation and cold-sweet-liquid craving. Once I got used to that, drinking “plain old water” didn’t seem as boring. Now I drink plenty of plain water and mix it up with the seltzer when I feel a sweet craving.
It’s not always easy, but it’s a new, established pattern that gets stronger every day. Gradually I’ll phase out the seltzer water, but for now, it keeps me on track.
Another thing I did when I first quit was taken a short walk when I felt a craving coming on. I knew I wanted a soda because I was having an energy crash, so I started taking a quick stroll outside the building through a wooded area in the back for just 5 minutes. I knew that would give me an energy boost and it was enjoyable, so it helped a lot.
The important thing here is you can’t just stop a pattern – you have to replace it with a new pattern, and it has to be something with a payoff you want to experience. Sometimes the new pattern is physical, like seltzer water or a walk in the woods.
Sometimes the new pattern is mental, like having a script you say to yourself in your head to talk yourself into better behavior (see How To Train Yourself To Be In The Mood You Want).
The key here is you have to have an alternative. Don’t fight the pattern. Fight to create a new one.
Now Here’s The Part Where I Tell You To Do Stuff
Here’s what I want you to do right now while this is all fresh on your mind:
Think of one habit change that’s been using the useless “stop” pattern and decide you’re going to create an enjoyable alternative.
Take 5 minutes right now and brainstorm that alternative pattern.
Leave a comment and tell us about what you’ve come up with. Leaving a comment will make you accountable for creating an alternative and the process will be a relief. If you don’t want to put your real name, just put “Ass Kicker” in the name field.