by Charles Duhigg as appeared in Bottom Line Health, Bottom Line Health

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Want to kick a bad habit—just about anybad habit? There’s a proven system that has helped millions of people give up damaging habits and establish new, healthful ones in their place. You can simplify that system to help yourself do the same. The secret: Drawing upon four key components of 12-step programs.

The first and most famous 12-step program is Alcoholics Anonymous (AA), and there are dozens of similar programs based on the same basic principles. These principles can help you, too, whether your goal is to cut back on junk food, quit being a couch potato, give up cigarettes, spend less, stop biting your nails or whatever.

The reason: What makes AA and other 12-step programs so effective for so many people is that they provide a powerful methodology for changing bad habits, according to Charles Duhigg, a Pulitzer prize–winning journalist and author of the best-selling The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business.

Members of AA often attest to the necessity of doing all 12 steps to deal with the life-threatening problem of alcoholism and achieve lasting sobriety. However, for the purposes of overcoming less grave bad habits and replacing them with good habits, you can think in terms of the following four key ideas…

Identify your primary commitment. People who come to AA typically have many problems—with family, friends, money, job, health, etc. All of those problems matter, and abstinence will help address them, but none of them are the main focus. Instead, people come to AA for one primary purpose—to get and stay sober.
Try this: In considering what habit of yours you’d like to change, commit to one specific goal (or one at a time, at least). For instance, instead of vowing to “get healthier” by overhauling your lifestyle (how complicated is that?!), focus on the single most important goal—say, no longer being a couch potato. Once you’ve established a routine of regular physical activity—for instance, taking a daily 20-minute walk—and have this new habit firmly embedded into your life, then you can start addressing other bad habits.

Take a self-inventory. AA encourages members to do an inventory, examining their feelings and behaviors and the “rewards” they get from drinking. This helps members to understand why they are drawn to drink and to recognize the specific triggers that spark cravings for alcohol. For example, a person may come to see that she drinks to numb feelings of fear or resentment or to feel more at ease in social situations…and that she is triggered by certain people or places, such as a longtime drinking buddy or a favorite bar.
Try this: Examine your own rewards and triggers. For instance, if you continually break your own promise to stop snacking on chips or sweets, what’s the reason? It’s probably not real hunger—instead, you may habitually reach for junk food when stressed or bored. To break his own afternoon cookie habit, Duhigg had to realize that it wasn’t the actual cookies he was so attached to, but rather the enjoyable routine of taking a break—getting up from his desk, walking to the cafeteria, chatting with coworkers. Once he understood this, he was able to come up with alternatives that provided the same rewards, such as walking around the block with a colleague or buying an apple instead of a cookie from the cafeteria.

Replace a bad habit with a good one—and practice the new habit every day. In AA, new members often are advised to “pick up the phone instead of a drink”…in other words, to take some positive new action (phoning a fellow alcoholic) whenever the urge strikes to indulge in the old habitual action (drinking). New members also are urged to attend 90 meetings in 90 days so that not a single day goes by without reinforcing the new habit of staying sober. Even if you are battling something far less serious than alcoholism, it takes at least several weeks for a healthful new habit to replace the old one—and consistency is key, Duhigg noted.
Try this: Suppose your goal is to get more sleep, so you’ve committed to going to bed by 11 pm every evening instead of habitually staying up past midnight. Do not undermine yourself by staying up late “only on Tuesdays” to watch a favorite TV show or by abandoning your new sleep routine on the weekends—at least for now. Once your new sleep habits are well formed, you may be able to make occasional exceptions without reverting to old bad habits (except in cases where complete abstinence is key to success, such as with an addiction).

Make use of a support network. In AA, selection of a “sponsor” (an AA mentor) plus contacts made at meetings provide a ready-made support system for each participant.
Try this: No matter what behavior you want to change, ask your friends and family members to support your efforts to establish your healthier new habit. It’s well proven, Duhigg said, that change is easier when you have someone who holds you accountable and applauds your progress. If you can find a buddy who has the same goal and the two of you can work together—or if you can find a mentor who has already achieved what you’re striving for (such as giving up smoking)—so much the better. Having the encouragement, advice and support of someone who truly understands what you’re going through will make it far easier to break old bad habits and create a healthier lifestyle for yourself.
These four steps could add up to one huge step for you!

Source: Charles Duhigg, Pulitzer prize–winning staff writer at The New York Times, and author of the best-seller The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business. (Random House).

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