We can all relate to the fact that changing our most ingrained, routine and “bad” habits is a tricky business. If we could all behave in the ways that we know we should, then people wouldn’t be seeking help for their problems, addictions would not exist, self-help books wouldn’t be necessary and I certainly wouldn’t be writing this blog post.
But, as I’m sure you’re all very much aware of, the world is not perfect. We become so wrapped up in our lives that we might not even notice the bad habits forming until they become part of your daily routine. Or maybe you did notice and just didn’t have the motivation needed at that time to make a change.
Altering a habit into a more constructive, healthy one is not always an easy path. But it isn’t an impossible one either. By using concepts established from behavioural science, you CAN learn how to understand and therefore change, your less than desirable habits.
In my previous post, I talked about identifying the consequences of your actions (or what you immediately get out of doing your “bad” habit) and how this can help you to change your behaviour for the better. That was my introduction into habit reversal, so if you haven’t read it yet, click here now before you carry on reading!
Now you know the basics of how to alter the consequences of your behaviour, you can begin to apply them to increase the behaviours that you want to repeat more often (like eating more fruit) and decrease those less desirable ones (such as overindulging on chocolate every night!). Applying these techniques can sound pretty simple, but it can take a bit of practice to implement them effectively.
So I created a list of hints and tips for changing your habits safely and effectively. I hope that they help!
Set achievable goals
Your goal should be easy enough to achieve so that you get to experience that nice reward or good feeling from avoiding that penalty.
But it must also be enough of a challenge so that your behaviour does improve for the better. After all, it’s a bit cheeky to set a goal to walk 1,000 steps every day when you know that you are already capable of walking that distance!
Think small and easy to deliver
Elaborate or expensive rewards and severe penalties may sound like a great idea, but they will only make it more likely that you won’t be able (or willing!) to deliver the consequence quickly and consistently. Quickly delivered and consistent consequences are more effective.
Whether you do this via Facebook or Twitter or just tell people you know about your habit busting targets, this will make you much more likely to reach your goals. Most people enjoy (or are positively reinforced!) by social praise!
Don’t choose something you regularly enjoy as a reinforcer. Make it a cut above your usual!
Samantha watches Coronation Street with a hot chocolate every evening to unwind. Because she enjoys this activity she decides to use this as her reinforcer for writing 300 words of her history assignment. Even though this reinforcer will be easy to deliver (meets the criteria of tip number 1) using this as a reinforcer will probably end in disaster for Samantha’s plans to increase her studying behaviour!
This is because it is hard to withhold things that you regularly enjoy. If Samantha doesn’t reach her 300-word target it will be quite difficult to prevent herself from watching her favourite show.
To make sure she is rewarding her good studying behaviour she could choose an activity that she likes but doesn’t do as often such as listening to music or make her regular activity a bit more special. For example, when Samantha studies she could drink a luxury brand of hot chocolate rather than Tesco’s own brand.
Continue to self-monitor and record your behaviour. This enables you to see whether your behaviour change plan is working as it should.
Tried all of these things but still lacking in the willpower to dish out consequences on yourself?
No worries. Technically there is nothing to stop you from failing to follow through with these consequences. You can always rationalise to yourself that you didn’t meet your goal, but you still deserve your reward or to avoid the penalty. After all, it’s been a hard day, right?
If this sounds like you then it’s okay. You can enlist the help of a friend/family member/significant other to ensure that you are following through with dishing out the consequences.
A third party is more likely to be objective and consistent in delivering the consequences. This will give the consequences a chance to take effect and change your behaviour for the better.
I hope it’s given you a new way to tackle your bad habits. They really do work if you have the drive to try them out!
Please do me know how you get on!
Reference: My guiding reference for this article was none other than Cooper, J.O., Heron, T.E., & Heward, W.L. (2007). Applied Behavior Analysis (2nd ed.). Upper Saddle River: NJ.
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