Eliminate Bad Habits for Greater Success

Good Habit To Do List

By Bernard Luskin, Ed.D., MFT

EVP/Dean of Graduate Studies

Wright Graduate University

 

Habits impact results.

Let’s explore the learning psychology of habit development, correction, and replacement of bad habits. Learning is a fundamental factor in achieving human potential and is central to the mission of Wright Graduate University.

There are three primary factors for learners in forming beneficial learning habits. They are (1) attention, (2) focus, and (3) purposeful repetition.

One of the persistent myths of learning is that practice makes perfect. This is only true if your actual practice is perfect. Only perfect practice makes perfect. If you practice an incorrect behavior, it becomes a habit, and, possibly even embeds what we call a “Soft Addiction.” Soft addictions are habits that seem harmless at first. Maybe you like to catch up on social media before bed. Maybe you enjoy online shopping for clothes that you never intend to buy. Or perhaps you find yourself saying yes to post-dinner snacking every night while you watch Netflix. These activities alone are not the enemy; however, they become harmful Soft Addictions when they steal precious time, money, energy, and even the happiness we long for. Adopting the habit of perfect practice leads to improved performance. Practicing imperfectly leads to imperfect performance.

So, just how much money can be wasted on these Soft Addictions? In her book, The Soft Addiction Solution, Judith Wright explains that “the lowest actual cost that a person has calculated for soft addictions—from coffee to Internet shopping—was just shy of $3,000 a year. And the average in most seminars has been somewhere between $15,000 and $18,000! If this is what you can reclaim in real dollars, just  imagine the lost intimacy and satisfaction you can regain.”

Soft addictions, including the habit of practicing imperfectly, are most effectively eliminated when replaced by new and better learning habits. The first step in developing a more fulfilling habit to replace an imperfect behavior is to develop and follow an intentional habit replacement plan. Habit formation includes an intentional process whereby new behaviors become automatic. For example, in smoking, if instead of instinctively reaching for a cigarette the moment you awaken in the morning, you instead step into your running shoes and head to the streets as soon as you awaken, you begin interrupting old patterns of thought and behavior and teach yourself how to learn good habits through intention and practice.

Habit patterns that we repeat with regularity are literally etched into our neural pathways. Old habits are hard to break. New habits are hard to form. Through correct and consistent repetition, it is possible to form and maintain new habits. So, bad habits can be eliminated and good habits can be reinforced and made more permanent.

Through the years, I have studied habits, researched methods of habit correction, and written about “The Habit Replacement Loop” as a strategy for creating positive habits. A loop is a repetitive cycle that is repeated until the response becomes automatic.

 

Memory is important

 If you want to develop a new habit or replace an existing habit, a best practice approach is to replace one habit with another by working on creating and establishing what may be termed “habit memory.”  Repetition loops create memory, thereby embedding the behavior. Repetition creates an automatic habit response. At Wright, the process we described above to overcome Soft Addictions is what we call “The Math of More.” The formula is simple: add habits into your routine that enhance your vision for your best life, and those new behaviors will naturally crowd out the habits that take away from that vision.

Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) is another successful tactic that can be effective in habit replacement. The goal is to change from poor practices to good practices through learning psychology. Reducing stress is an example of a habit replacement goal. Intentional reduction of stress, including anxiety, can take place by replacing stress by doing something that gives you a feeling of accomplishment, like learning something new.

Habit Replacement Repetition is a behavior strategy that can help those wanting to change habituated nail-biting, thumb-sucking, muscle spasms, or stress disorders resulting from anxiety. Habit replacement loops can also help those who simply have poor personal habits resulting from imperfect and even detrimental behavior practices. Simply stated, once you identify the habits you wish to change, you can consciously replace them by intentionally finding a substitute behavior as a replacement. As an example, intentionally reinforcing the habit of regular exercise through repetition can yield both physical and mental benefits.

 

Desire is very important

New Year’s resolutions are an excellent example of wishes to change that may or may not have the substantial degree of desire necessary. Learning to learn requires motivation, identification, and conscious effort. Habit observation and management may be used to help you to:

  • Notice early signs that a habit is starting. Be self-aware and practice self-awareness.
  • Change circumstances when you identify that a habit is beginning to form.
  • Intentionally do things to replace the habit. You can’t just eliminate a habit, but you can replace the less desirable habit with a new habit.
  • Learn relaxation techniques to manage the stress that, if not managed, may make a habit worse.

There are also Soft Addictions you have already formed that you may not have yet identified. Judith Wright explains, “Without fail, in the fifteen years since I coined the term soft addictions, people respond with an aha! when they first hear the term. They immediately identify a common soft addiction or even mention an addiction of their own: ‘Oh, yeah, like watching too much television,’ or ‘ spend a lot of time on the Internet.’ After they learn more, they generally discover even more soft addictions, such as gossiping, nail-biting, or collecting things.”

After you understand what to do, you can practice the techniques and responses repeatedly wherever you are, including writing reinforcement notes to yourself about your progress. Notes help to create and reinforce memory.

Also, you can set up a time and place to practice habit substitution, leading to replacement. Reward yourself often by reminding yourself about what you are doing. Psycho-visualization is another technique that works. Creating visualized scenarios that are memorably vivid and unique reinforces your memory. Your mind can help you visualize and repeat a perfect practice.

Every habit has three components: (1) a cue or a trigger for an automatic behavior to start, (2) a routine (the behavior itself), and (3) a reward (that is how our brain learns to remember this pattern for the future).

In The Golden Rule of Habit Change, Charles Duhigg says that the most effective way to replace a habit is to find a way to retain the old cue that triggered a behavior and identify and automate a new routine that leads to a new outcome. We recommend on the process of if-then planning that Richard Wiseman’s book 59 Seconds: Think a Little, Change A Lot describes, in which one strategizes particular conditions one is sure to encounter and plans more desirable responses. For example, “If I walk by the office manager’s candy dish and am tempted to take one, I will instead warmly greet her and substitute the sweetness of human contact for the sugary treat.”

Use a “memorable trigger” whenever you are tempted to engage in a new and positive habit. Think of something that you can remember, such as rubbing your arm, wrapping your knuckle on a table or desk, or anything that you can use to produce a memorable physical response.

 

The seven steps in successful bad habit replacement

To summarize, the seven steps in successful habit replacement are to:

  1. Develop awareness.
  2. Intentionally replace a negative habit, or “Soft Addiction” and substitute a positive routine.
  3. Eliminate negative triggers. Identify and substitute positive triggers.
  4. Buddy up. Join forces with somebody. Get a buddy if that’s possible and makes sense to you.
  5. Pick your friends. Surround yourself with people who behave the way you want to behave and use the power of the group effect.
  6. See yourself succeeding with the new habit.
  7. Be persistent. Practice your new routine. If you miss a repetition opportunity; keep on repeating the behavior, and it will eventually stick.

Old habits are hard to break, and new habits are hard to form. The good news is that through repetition – more perfect practice —  it is possible to eliminate bad habits and substitute and maintain positive new habits.

Creating positive learning habits is fundamental to establishing proper learning patterns. Learning is foundational in personal development and learning how to learn is a key to sustained vitality, personal development, self-actualization, and success in achieving one’s potential.

Understanding the learning psychology of habit replacement and development is a process by which new behaviors become automatic, which means that you have advanced to a new normal for yourself.

 

References:

Duhigg, Charles. The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business. New York, N.Y. Random House, 2012.

Wiseman, Richard. 59 Seconds: Think a Little, Change a Lot. London: Pan Macmillan, 2009

Wright, Judith. Living a Great LifeThe Theory of Evolating. (1ed. Vol 1), Chicago, Wright Foundation, 2013.

Wright, Judith. The Soft Addiction Solution: Break Free of the Seemingly Harmless Habits That Keep You from the Life You Want. J.P. Torcher/Penguin, 2006.

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