Health & Well-Being

Breaking Bad Habits

Improving the odds of success.

By Dr. Lou Primavera

There’s always something we’d like to fix about ourselves — lose weight, quit smoking, learn a language, and so on. The trouble is changing habits requires work. Habits are resilient because they serve our interests — that’s why we develop them in the first place. If you need to lose weight, you probably love food or profit emotionally from eating; if you smoke, you do it because it feels good.

The hardest part about breaking a habit is sticking with the program. And that’s often because we can be undermined by our expectations. When people try to change, they monitor whatever they’re working on so they can gauge their success. If we want to lose weight we start a diet and check our progress by jumping on a scale every few days. If we drop a pound, we’re making progress. But if, and when, the scale doesn’t move, or heaven forbid, it goes in the other direction, we’ve made no progress at all, or worse, we’ve failed.

That’s called all or none, or dichotomous thinking. It’s an unrealistic view of how change actually takes place, and can work against achieving our goal. because when we think we’ve made no progress, we may give up trying. We can also come away with a sense of powerlessness — we don’t have what it takes to stay on a diet, and so we are destined to live with our pudginess forever.

As a more realistic view, change is an up and down process. It’s not a steady upward climb; it’s more like as a saw tooth curve — some movement upward, then downward, then upward, etc. There will always be some sliding back, which is then followed by improvement. We might even find that when we first get started, the behavior we’re trying to change actually gets a little worse. That’s because sometimes without being conscious of it, we fight against the change — again, habits serve our interests and we don’t like giving them up.

When we understand that change occurs slowly and not always in one direction, we can forgive our slip-ups and so we’re less likely to give up trying. We also stop believing in magic, and by that I mean action without work. We watch a magician place a blanket over a person, he or she then says a few words and that person disappears. The magician has not expended any effort that to make the person disappear, it just happened. To expect that change will be instantaneous or won’t require effort over a sustained period of time is tantamount to believing in magic.

This may sound silly, but sometimes we can’t help believing such things. Go to the self-help section in any book store. Check out the books on losing weight, quitting smoking, having a better sex life, and the like. You will notice that the titles suggest changing these patterns is easy. You might come across a title such as, “Eat All You Want and Still Lose All the Weight You Want”. Books like these become best sellers because people want to believe their claims were real.

That brings us to learning how to cope with too-slow success. When things are not moving according to expectations, we can approach our lack of success from two different angles. We can adopt an active strategy, that is, we stick with our plan and give it more time, or try alternative approaches. By confronting the situation head on, we give ourselves a chance to come up with a solution rather than give in to our discouragement.

The alternative is to take a passive approach. When we don’t get results we want, we can withdraw or let our emotions lead us to inaction. We might believe we’re either incapable of fixing the problem or that too much effort is required. Or we can react with anger, frustration, and impatience. Passive coping can make us feel worse, because we walk away with a feeling that we have little control over our lives.

Even if we choose an active coping strategy, we have to make sure we focus on the right things. We can take an emotion-focused approach, where we try to control our anger and frustration that block us from making progress. However, the problem with an emotion-focused strategy is that we don’t get at the heart of what’s causing the emotions. Unless we deal with the underlying causes, these negative emotions will continue to crop up and cause us to feel badly or lead us to think we should just give up.

“Nothing so needs reforming as other people’s habits.”
-Mark Twain

Alternatively, we can use the more effective situation-focused approach, in which we attack our irrational beliefs. If you are experiencing negative emotions, such as anger or frustration, because you are not further along in reaching your goal, focus on your beliefs and not on your emotions. You might, for example, come to realize that you expected improvement to come more quickly or easily. As we said, such an expectation is irrational because it doesn’t take into account how change actually happens. But by adopting a more rational belief about how fast or easy changes can be achieved, you can reduce your non-adaptive negative emotions. The right coping skills can help you set up more realistic expectations about your goals and make it easier for you to persevere in the face of less than expected success.

Knowing what to expect and being realistic about how fast we progress is essential to success. That’s what is at the heart of staying motivated to pursue a goal.

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