3 Simple Tactics to Carve a Path Beyond Your Bad Habits
Updated: Apr 15
What you need to know before attempting to break a bad habit
Last time, I wrote about how I get trapped in my bad habit of snacking for stress relief. I reviewed NYU Psychologist Jonathan Haidt's concept of the elephant and the rider. Our rational, thinking mind is the human-sized rider of an enormous emotion-driven elephant.
Even in the best of circumstances, the rider has limited power. Add in a boatload of stress and the rider doesn’t stand a chance. The elephant is in control and charges for our short-term (usually unhealthy) fixes.
This happens enough and our bad habits become entrenched.
The more we can limit our stress to healthy levels, the less often we’ll fall into these bad habits. But what happens when we can’t (or won’t) limit our stress level to healthy levels? Is there anything we can do?
Tactic 1: The power of forgiveness to boost willpower and help you change habits
Almost as long as I’ve been snacking for stress relief, I have been berating myself for doing so. It turns out, this behavior and the flood of negative emotions it produces erodes our willpower.
Once I learned the impact of this negative thinking on my stress level, I had a realization. Even if I couldn’t stop the snacking right away, I could slow the rampaging elephant down and give the rider a boost if I forgave myself for being human.
I began to tell myself a different story each time I stood at the refrigerator. I began a campaign of self-forgiveness.
Instead of berating myself, I felt some compassion for the stressful state I was in. Sure, I took all the actions to get me there, but I was working on changing that and change is hard. It takes time and exploration.
My inner talk became one about stress and energy management. I would say things like, “Okay, you’re stressed out otherwise you wouldn’t be here. What’s going on?” Or, “Is there anything else I can do to relax?” Or, “If you eat this, you can do it while walking around the block.”
This self-forgiveness means that although I might slip up, I can bounce back faster. It also puts me in a constructive problem-solving mode. I can analyze the situation and start trying new responses instead of the same old ones.
Here’s another bonus, self-compassion feels a lot better than guilt - AND it boosts your self-improvement motivation.
The best tip for dealing with this comes from The Willpower Instinct by Kelly McGonical. We are always so unkind to ourselves, yet far more compassionate with others.
When I slip up and the negative talk creeps in, I imagine what I would say to a friend of mine. One that’s trying very hard but still failing. Then words of encouragement come rushing in. They’re like fuel to the rider and a calming influence on the elephant.
Tactic 2: Don’t Quit - Substitute
Now you know how to keep a bit of fuel in your tank. Here’s the next tactic. It’s easier to substitute a new habit rather than wipe one out.
James Clear has my favorite outline of the cycle that builds a habit:
Cue >>> Craving >>> Response >>> Reward
What’s actually happening is that the brain senses an input (cue) that wants a response (craving). Like a ping from your phone gives you a yearning to see what came in! Checking your phone is the response. And the reward - we do get a little bump of dopamine each time we swipe an email away or see who texted us. There’s one type of reward.
If the brain senses a reward, it wires those neural pathways together to improve your odds of more rewards the next time that ping comes through. That’s the “neurons that fire together wire together” mantra you may have heard. Do it enough and you start to do the behavior automatically and voila! It’s a habit.
These pathways never go away. This is what relapsing into an old habit is all about. It’s still there, the path has just become a bit overgrown. Our job is to build a superhighway to another path that becomes much easier to take than the old unhealthy one.
We want to play in the realm of the “Response” part of the cycle.
The cue presents itself: too much work stresssssssssssss.
The craving happens: eating (like sex and drugs and online shopping and all the things we get compulsive about) raises dopamine levels and makes us feel good. I want that. I want it now. Stress sucks.
Response: instead of the snack or the new outfit, choose a different behavior that will give you a reward.
Here’s the problem - dopamine is cheap. The other feel-good neurotransmitters, like serotonin and oxytocin, take time.
This is why I started with a boost to your willpower. The more worn down you are, the more likely you are to fall down the old cheap and easy path. Very normal. Very logical. No bueno in the long term. Expect for this to happen and know that habit change is a process over time. Understand the defeats and celebrate the heck outta the victories (reward!).
So, how do we go choosing a positive response to replace the unhelpful one?
According to the American Psychological Association, there are many effective strategies to change your neurochemistry in a positive direction.
· Pray/religious service
· Spending time with friends/family
· Getting a massage
· Going outside for a walk
· Spending time with a creative hobby
These activities boost mood-enhancing hormones like serotonin, GABA, and oxytocin - not craving ones like dopamine. They reduce stress chemicals in the body and induce the relaxation response. Because they don’t elicit the same excitement, we tend to underestimate how good they make us feel.
Let’s add that if on a scale of 1 - 10 you’re at minus 1,000,000, you don’t have the willpower to START one of these activities. I get a boost from food in my mouth IMMEDIATELY for almost no effort. I need at least 10 minutes of walking to start to get some good juices flowing.
I have four recommendations for this situation:
Do 2 minutes of the positive behavior and then let yourself have the snack (or other dopamine behavior). You’re at least beginning to build the new habit.
Take the snack on the walk with you. You may be reworking the snacking path, but you’re also building the walking one!
Let it go. Practice self-forgiveness. While you eat that snack, think about ways to reduce your stress level so you have more willpower next time.
Call for reinforcements! Other supportive people are a HUGE boost.
Side note: you might think that setting a resolution for next time would be a good tactic, but that doesn’t usually work. This was the unsuccessful tactic I illustrated at the beginning of this article. Setting resolutions offers an immediate sense of relief. Vowing to change fills us with hope and we fantasize about the person we will become. Plans make us feel better, whether they’re realistic or not. This is also called, “False Hope Syndrome.” Ultimately, it’s a strategy for feeling better, not a strategy for change.
Tactic 3: How about a willpower-free solution?
As I mentioned in the previous article:
“There is one other element in the equation, and that’s the path. An elephant is far more likely to walk a clear path in front of it. This is another place the rider can exert some control.”
This is where environment design comes into play. The easiest way to change a behavior is to change the environment you’re in.
This can happen in a million ways. Let’s start with a simple example.
If there are no sugary snacks in the house, you will not eat sugary snacks in the house. Done. End of story.
This is part of clearing a path for the big elephant. Or think of it as the “path of least resistance.” If you ditch all the unhealthy snacks and have a giant bowl of your favorite fruit in plain view on the counter...what do you think is going to happen?
Yes, you could drive to the store and gorge on doughnuts. But will that happen every day or just on the really crappy days?
In the Elephant and Rider metaphor, Haidt talks about a few goals around the path - clear it and shorten it.
Removing the unhealthy snacks is a way to clear the path.
To shorten the path, you might ask that elephant to do one of your substitute habits for 10 minutes before having that snack. The thought of going all day or all week without that special reward will blow the elephant’s mind. But 10 minutes? We got this.
I found environment design to be so effective, I build my entire business around it. GoGoDone is a virtual coworking community. You register for a 90 or 120 minute session, show up and state what you’ll work on, work with others and network during the breaks. This involves pre-commitment, blocked off time, stating your goals to others, having them check in during the breaks, positive social support and pressure and a warm and fuzzy celebratory wrap up. I can’t help but be productive, especially on the projects I procrastinate on.
Hands down, I’ve found that designing my environment is the most effective path to behavior change and there are many tactics to use under this umbrella. Benjamin Hardy’s Willpower Doesn’t Work is a must-read and will fill your environment design arsenal. Or just join us at GoGoDone! Progress guaranteed!!
Getting a little bit better each day pays off in the long run
I still have not completely broken my snacking habit, however, at this point, I probably snack about 80% less than I used to. Even more importantly, I’m spending none of my days berating myself for being weak and helpless.
As each day passes, I build my skills of self-observation and problem-solving. I ask myself better questions about my stress level and make better decisions about what to commit to and what to delay or say no to. My urge to snack is becoming a wonderful alarm system to alert me to the times where I’m allowing my stress level to creep too high.
I’m now on a campaign to get more realistic about what I can get done and what items on my todo list are unrealistic and just there to stress me out - like feeding the elephant a bowl of ice cream and an Adderall. I listen to that elephant who’s telling me to stop driving it so hard and now there are many times where we saunter down the path in harmony.
It turns out that if you can get your rider to stop fighting the elephant and start combining their collective wisdom, you can choose the best path together and get much further together than each would get alone.