Changing habitual behaviors

Everyone has habits – some good, some bad, some inconsequential. One study suggests  that something like 43% of our behavior is habitual. This includes sequences of behavior that we’ve “chunked” together, and often perform automatically, so we don’t have to make myriad decisions every day. When you get in your car to drive to your friend’s house, you’re probably thinking about your destination or what you want to say to your friend. You don’t have to decide on each action as you automatically depress the clutch, turn on the ignition, fasten your seat belt, release the parking brake, shift into first gear or reverse, and  step on the gas pedal while easing off on the clutch. You don’t always have to be mindful about driving until you’re in traffic. We spend part of each day on “automatic pilot,” not having to make individual decisions about routine behavior sequences – which can include such things as drug abuse or “screen addiction.”

Throughout most of history, an individual’s habits arose from the culture and that individual’s circumstances and proclivities. These days, many of our habitual behaviors have been conditioned by corporate social engineers, applying principles of social science in the fields of advertising, marketing, public relations, and political consultancy. Using classical (Pavlovian) conditioning and other psychotechnologies of influence, they “invisibly” shape habitual behavior on a mass scale. I’m convinced that America’s obesity epidemic is largely due to the constant barrage of advertisements for tasty, if not necessarily healthy, foods. I’ve written about this corporate social engineering in my book, Ad Nauseam: How Advertising and Public Relations Changed Everything.

Everybody knows how hard it can be to change a bad habit. During my career, I had many clients who entered therapy because they needed professional help in order to change a bad habit. Willpower by itself is seldom sufficient to establish a desired change, because you have to maintain mindful awareness of your triggers and urges/cravings every waking hour, and to persistently resist temptation. The rewards of (for instance) dieting are long-term; the reward of giving in to a food craving is immediate. The good news is that once you’ve successfully changed a habit, it gets easier and easier to  maintain the change as time goes on. Quitting smoking, my nicotine cravings used to last all day. Eventually they only lasted for seconds, and now I haven’t had one for years.

Whether smart phone use can be addictive depends on your definition of addiction. I’m “old school” on the subject and believe that tolerance (needing more over time to meet your need) and physiological withdrawal are hallmarks of true addiction. Sex and gambling and screen time don’t qualify as addictions by the classic definition, but the physiological responses of gambling/sex/smartphone/gaming “addicts” are very similar to the responses of drug addicts. There may be withdrawal, in the form of cravings, but they’re psychological in origin.

Changing a habit often requires  a strategic approach to the problem. What mental, emotional, and social factors tend to keep the undesirable behavior in place? Once you’ve analyzed the factors that support your bad habit, make a plan. Visualize how your life will be better when you’ve succeeded.

Here are four things you can do to replace a bad habit with a good one. (1) Your plan should take into account the things related to the bad habit, such as time, place, emotional states, and social factors ( i.e. It’s not a good idea to hang around with your drinking buddies early in sobriety). (2) Declare your intention and your criteria for success to friends and family. This gives you an added social incentive to succeed. (3) Build-in  consequences, positive or negative. They can be natural consequences, or constructed. A natural, positive consequence if you’re quitting smoking is to add up the money you’re saving, and when you accumulate enough, treat yourself to a trip to Disneyland, or Vegas, or wherever. A negative, constructed consequence might be writing a $100 check to some organization that you despise, and giving it to a friend, to be mailed if you fail to change the targeted habit. (4) Don’t rely on good intentions and willpower, but structure your environment to make the bad habit more inconvenient. You can’t binge on cookies and ice cream while watching TV if you don’t buy them and bring them home in the first place. Other environmental factors are social – enlisting the support of those around you to help you meet your goal, and avoiding those who might undermine your resolve.

I’d never say “Good luck” to someone who announced his or her intent to kick a bad habit. Luck has nothing to do with it, and willpower is only one of the things you’ll need to succeed.

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