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Getting yourself to do what you want yourself to do

Breaking habits is hard. Here’s how to make it easier.

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Photo by Manan Chhabra on Unsplash
Photo by Manan Chhabra on Unsplash

And now for the second post in our series about habits. Here’s the first one if you didn’t catch it.

Habit is a neutral word. A habit is simply something we do without thinking about it. It’s an automatic behavior.

That said, we often think of habits as “good” and “bad”. And it makes sense; humans tend to like duality and clear lines. In my last article, I wrote about strategies we can use when we are trying to build “good” habits. Strategies that don’t rely on willpower.

And when we are trying to break a “bad” habit, we need strategies too!

So today I’m going to focus on strategies you can use when you have an automatic behavior that isn’t serving your well.

Try these strategies when you want to break a habit:

REPLACEMENT

Replacement is often the first strategy we think of when it comes to “bad” habits. By using the strategy of replacement, you take a behavior that is affecting you negatively and you replace it with a positive or neutral behavior. This is the theory behind the nicotine patch, and the mock-tail.

The strategy of replacement can be super effective because you’re not trying to change everything at once, you’re still allowing yourself a behavior as a result of the trigger or context, but it’s just one that’s less harmful towards your ultimate goal.

One of my (very wise) clients once told me that he always tries to make the “slightly less bad choice”. I love this. Its replacement at its kindest and gentlest.

When you make the “slightly less bad choice”, you choose the regular, instead of the king-sized, Snickers. You go to sleep at 12:30am instead of 1am. You stop running after 12 minutes instead of 10.

Making the “slightly less bad choice” may be slow going. But it’s incremental progress and it’s easier than, say, going cold turkey. And small, incremental progress works for long term, sustainable change.

INCONVENIENCE

When we’re trying to build a habit, one of the best strategies is to remove friction, to make it convenient.

When we’re trying to break a habit, one of the best strategies is to increase friction and to make the behavior you’re trying to avoid as inconvenient as possible for yourself.

Why does the strategy of inconvenience work? Because it’s easier to remove temptation than to resist it.

In one study, participants ate twice as much candy if they simply had to reach over, vs. walk about 6 feet to a candy dish.

One of the habits so many of my clients and friends are trying to break is compulsive checking their phones. Email, social, games, etc. And I bet you’re on your phone more than you want. So think about ways to make it less convenience or yourself:

  • You can remove apps from your phone, for sure, but if that’s too extreme, how about just moving all those apps you know you check too much to a folder 4 swipes back called “Think Twice” or “Time Sucks”?
  • Or what about simply logging out of those apps? If you have to spend 15 seconds logging in, that’s inconvenient enough to just not do it.
  • If you dare, go a step further and put your phone in another room for a few hours. Going all the way to the other room might just be too inconvenient…and allow you to break your habit.

FINE YOURSELF

Ok, this one’s a bit extreme, but the goal is to put your money where your mouth is. Most of us have a lot of attachment to our money. We don’t want to give it up.

So the theory is that if we have to give it up when we don’t do what we want ourselves to do, we’ll be more inclined to make the right choice. Here are some other iterations of this method that I’ve seen work for people:

  • Then pick a cause that you don’t agree with and donate to this cause each time you perform the behavior you are trying to stop.  
  • Tape a $10 bill to each day of a wall calendar. On the days you do what you’re intending not to do, you pull that $ off the wall and donate it.
  • Engage in a friendly bet with an accountability partner. At the beginning of the week, you each commit to fulfilling certain goals. You meet at the end of the week, and whoever doesn’t meet their goals owes the other $50.
  • Heck, there are even apps, like Spar, that facilitate this whole process and let you put money on the line with absolute strangers!

(And be warned, it doesn’t work for everyone. Case in point: When one of my kids was 4 or 5, we had a swear jar in our house. You know, a jar on the counter where, if you utter a swear word, you have to drop in a quarter. Well, my kid? He ran into his room, opened up his piggy bank, and returned with a $20 bill. He dropped it right in the jar, looked me straight in the eye and say “There! Now I can swear as much as I want!”. So, doesn’t work for everyone.)

IDENTIFY TRIGGERS AND CREATE AND IF/THEN PLAN

This one is my favorite. Why do I love it? Because it mirrors my philosophy of separating the planning from the doing.

If you want to stop a negative behavior in it’s tracks, first identify the circumstances, the context, the trigger, that lead to you to perform the behavior in the first place. Then, create an if/then plan for what you’ll do when those circumstances materialize.

For example:

  • If you’re trying to stop biting your nails, identify the reasons you bite (nervousness, anxiety?) and decide that when you feel those feelings, you’ll use a fidget spinner instead. Or you’ll stretch your wrists. Or you’ll twiddle your thumbs.
  • If you’re trying to eat less junk, decide that if you get hungry, you’ll eat a piece of fruit.

Take the in-the-moment thinking out of the equation entirely. Don’t leave it up to willpower.

Not every strategy above will speak to you, or work for you. But I bet at least one of them will.

Let me know what works for you, or what you’re excited to try.

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