By Rivers Woodward
Crocuses are pushing their way eagerly from thawing soil, beckoning others to join in the celebration of Spring. Faint hues of green and red bely the budding leaves and promise of summer shade to come. The January blizzard is now a distant memory, and perhaps your new year’s resolutions are as well.
Well if forming a new habit wasn’t your bag of chips this Winter, how about un-forming one this Spring?
Jesting aside, we all have habits, patterns, and ways of being that either no longer serve us or never did. I don’t refer only to excesses of tobacco, alcohol, and drugs, but any unhealthy behavior that we find ourselves repeating over and over again. This might be hours spent scrolling on social media, a dessert each evening with two on the tough days, romantic relationships that always end and begin in the same fashion, or any other pattern that is due for change. One element of habits that makes them difficult to alter is that they all exist for a reason. I recommend starting by finding a better reason for their absence.
Answer the W’s: People don’t usually change a deep-rooted habit just because they read a newspaper article or their doctor admonished them. Finding your reason for change involves being honest and vulnerable with yourself – I encourage you to choose a behavior and try to answer the following questions:
What is the habit or behavior that is no longer serving you? What is it about that habit that is causing problems in your life? What does engaging in that behavior keep you from?
When does it typically happen? Do you light a cigarette every evening after dinner? Do you scroll through social media each morning in bed?
Why do you engage in that particular habit? Do you have an extra glass of wine when you are feeling anxious? Do you eat fast food on Thursdays when you stay late at work?
Who is impacted? Does your pattern of needing to feel desired lead you to end relationships as soon as the initial passion wears off? Are you increasing your chance of a heart attack by drinking two glasses of wine each night rather than one?
How would you want things to look different? This might look like stopping altogether, or simply modifying a behavior to move towards a healthier balance.
Find replacements: Using the “why” and “when” questions above, list situations or feelings that reliably lead you to engage in the habit you are trying to change. Knowing these triggers allows you to plan ahead. Instead of lighting a cigarette when you feel anxious, try going for a walk outside, take a hot shower, call a friend. The more tools that you can add to your tool belt for dealing with the underlying trigger for the behavior, the more successful you will be. Learning to deal with difficult emotions in a healthy way is a muscle that needs to be exercised before it can become strong.
Use dopamine: Many of our habits are maintained in part by the dopamine bump we receive from engaging in them. When finding replacement activities, try exploring things that also give your brain a boost of dopamine such as exercise, meditation, listening to music, or watching something that makes you laugh.
Share with others: When deciding to seek change, share with loved ones. Even better if you can find an “accountability partner” who is also working to change a behavior. The speaking of a commitment out loud gives it durability and a reality far beyond that which internal dialogue alone can provide.
Plan for setbacks: Change is hard and all habits exist for a reason. Know that success is never a straight line. When the wave comes crashing over the hull, don’t throw yourself into the ocean. Instead, write in your journal, revisit your “W’s,” or call your accountability partner and keep moving forward.
Most people try to break a habit many times before they finally succeed. Those that succeed are the ones who kept trying. If your “trying” involves actions, then in reality you are “doing.” As Brendan Leonard writes, there is no such thing as fake it till you make it, only make it till you make it.