Bad Habits to Break

When I was a little kid, every night before I went to sleep I would go to my bookshelf and pull down all of my picture books (and I had a mini Library of Alexandria, to be sure) and bring them into my bed. Even before I could read a single word in them, I would stay up way past my bed time, just flipping through the pages until I’d fall asleep with the open book across my face. My parents were terrified that I would poke an eye out while sleeping with those cardboard corners, but I couldn’t help myself. It was my first bad habit.

Now, I’ve replaced the picture books with crime novels (and an unhealthy load of Netflix documentaries, let’s be honest), and the bad habit persists. We all have them! My mother is a nail-biter well into her fifties, my brother sucked his thumb until he was about 10, and my best friend never takes her eyes off of her Instagram feed.

But what exactly is a habit? A habit is an action we make on a routine basis that is automatic, practically instinctual. If the first thing you do when you wake up in the morning is check your Facebook notifications, you have a habit. If whenever you sit down to watch TV you also reach for a bag of chips, there’s another one. But habits aren’t always bad. One can have as many good habits as bad habits. A good habit is an instinctual behavior that serves to better you or your life – like making your bed first thing in the morning or flossing every night before you go to bed.

The reason these actions feels so instinctual is because behavioral patterns we repeat with any amount of frequency are quite literally etched into our neural pathways. The good news is that, with the right amount of attention and repetition, we can actually train our brain to form new, better habits. In fact, there has been a slew of books based on the psychological research of habit formation and habit changing within the past couple of years. One idea that has come from this increased interest in habit formation is “habit replacement looping,” which was popularized by Charles Duhigg in his recent book The Power of Habit. “Habit Replacement Looping” is a behavior therapy that helps people identify the true cue, routine, and “reward” of each bad habit, and how to switch the routine aspect in a way that still recognizes the cue and provides you with a reward.

In Duhigg’s prime example, he talks of a habit he’d developed while writing his first book wherein he would get up from his desk every afternoon and go down to the cafeteria to eat a cookie. In this example, he knew he wanted to change the routine – the eating of the cookie – but still needed to recognize the cue and allow himself the reward. So, was the cue low blood sugar? Was it boredom and restlessness? Or was it actual physical hunger? And then, what was the true reward he was after? Was it the cookie itself, or was it something else, like the opportunity to socialize with coworkers or to get up and move his feet a bit?

His next step was to experiment with rewards to see what satisfied his craving. One day, when he felt the urge to go down to the cafeteria for a cookie, he decided to drink a cup of coffee at his desk instead. The next day, he got up and took a walk around the neighborhood instead of eating anything, and the next he went down to the cafeteria to chat with his coworkers and again avoided the cookie counter. He then evaluated how he felt each day when he came back to his desk, and he found that it wasn’t the cookie that made him feel so great, but the chance to talk to his coworkers. He was then able to change his routine without ignoring the cue or abandoning the reward.

With his example in mind, I wanted to think about how I could change my own bad habit of staying up way too late reading. What reward was I seeking? Did I just like staying up late? Was my book so riveting that I just had to finish it? Or was I just trying to squeeze in a couple of hours of “me time” in my otherwise horribly busy day?

On the first night I stayed up until my normal bedtime of around midnight, but instead of reading I made cupcakes for a coworker’s birthday. The next night I read a different, less interesting book until my normal bedtime. The next I went to bed at 10 and woke up around 7 the next morning to just do… whatever I wanted to do. The last day’s experiment was the one that left me the most satisfied, and made me realize that my true reward wasn’t getting to finish a book or see the wee hours of the next morning, but getting a couple of hours to myself every day.

While it will probably be quite difficult to change my habit of staying up too late, now that I understand more clearly why I do it, I can hopefully begin to slowly and methodically change this habit into one that serves me better. Whether you are a nail-biter or a binge-watcher, an over-eater or an over-spender, once you understand your actions and motivations a bit better, you can gain power over it.

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