Breaking “bad” habits – how to do it
Do you or your clients have the “new year’s” desire to change a behaviour — e.g. to lose weight, start going to the gym, or stop smoking? While it’s tempting to add more and more tasks to an already busy schedule, sometimes it’s more productive to stop doing some of the less helpful behaviours first. That will then give you the time and energy to invest in more helpful habits.
While there are many theories around behaviour change, the team at Specialist Nutrition Rehab have tested the most practical strategies from the following two books:
Here are our top 6 tips for helping clients break “bad” (or unhelpful) habits:
1. Think about identity and not outcomes.
Most people are very goal-oriented. They want to be a specific weight. They want to go to the gym 3 times per week. Goals can be helpful, because they provide direction, but they can also be counterproductive – especially if the person feels like a “failure” for not achieving the goal or if there is no motivation to continue with the behaviour after the goal is reached. The best example of this is when someone loses weight (goal achieved), but then regains the weight because they go “off the diet” and back to their previous eating habits.
If someone instead focuses on changing their identity to be a “healthy, active person who takes care of their body,” then it can be much easier to get habits and behaviours to align with this. For example, if someone is tempted to skip a workout — what would a “healthy, active person who takes care of their body” do? Maybe they would still do it in this particular situation. Maybe they would choose to do a shorter workout instead. What matters is that for each healthy behaviour that the person DOES engage with, that just reinforces their new identity (whether they achieve the outcome or not). It becomes impossible to fail and that can put someone on the road to a lifetime of healthier habits.
2. Track the behaviour.
Most people spend so much time on autopilot, that they aren’t truly aware of what they are doing. Often just the act of writing down the frequency of certain behaviours starts to change them. Collecting some “baseline” factual data (eg. food recording, daily step count, hours of sleep per night) can help someone face reality, decide what needs to change and then track their progress over time.
3. Make the trigger invisible.
Knowing what initiates (or triggers) an unhelpful behaviour, is critical. If someone wants to eat less chocolate, that is pretty hard to do if there is chocolate constantly lying around the house or if every time they open the cupboard, that is the first thing they see. It’s also a huge waste of energy to be constantly trying to fight temptation. Make life easier and remove the temptation/trigger in the first place. Suggest they keep chocolate out of the house, or at the very least, keep it somewhere that they won’t constantly see it. There is no issue with eating these foods on occasion, the goal is just to make sure it’s a deliberate act (that is thoroughly enjoyed!) and not something done on autopilot.
4. Make it unappealing (or find an alternative).
Most people engage in unhelpful behaviours because they want to feel differently in that moment. For example, they consume alcohol or eat because they want to be less bored or less stressed. People will often say they do these things because they are “lazy” or “lack motivation,” but that actually isn’t true. There is always a reason behind every behaviour and the person is getting something from doing the unhelpful habit (e.g. less stress, more socialisation). If we can figure out the “why,” it makes it much easier to find a healthier replacement that will stick.
- If someone is eating because they are bored, what other enjoyable (non-food) activities could they implement to relieve boredom? Could they do that activity for 1, 2, 10 minutes BEFORE they eat? Then little by little, could they start replacing the unhelpful behaviour with the new habit?
- If food is someone’s main pleasure in life (and how they “treat” themselves), how could they achieve pleasure without using food?
- Conversely, if eating a takeaway makes someone feel really sluggish, bloated and unwell, sometimes really paying attention to these sensations (and the negative feelings associated with the behaviour), can make it less appealing in the future.
5. Make it difficult.
Behaviours happen more often when they are easy to do. It’s easy to eat chocolate and crisps because they are available everywhere, they don’t spoil and don’t require any preparation. It’s easy to eat fast food, when someone can place an order on their phone and get the food delivered to their door. So if someone wants to STOP doing these things, they need to make it more difficult — by deleting the app off their phone or keeping certain foods out of the house. Having to log into a website to place an order, or go to the shop at 11pm to get certain foods, makes people less likely to do it. Some clients have also found that keeping certain foods at the back of the closet (or in some other obscure location) and/or buying individually wrapped chocolates (instead of a sharing box/bag) works well for them. This is because more effort is now required to eat these foods and that makes them less appealing. Again, the goal isn’t necessarily to totally stop the behaviour, just to make it more deliberate.
6. Make it unsatisfying.
Unhelpful behaviours often “stick” because they are instantly gratifying. How someone feels at the end of an activity tends to be what they remember. This influences how likely they are to do that behaviour again in the future. For example, if they feel happy and energised after doing some exercise, they will likely want to do it again. If they feel exhausted and dreadful after a workout, they likely won’t.
There are a few different strategies that can make an unhelpful habit less satisfying:
- create immediate consequences – there needs to be a “cost” to continuing to engage in the unhelpful habit. Getting the person to think about the consequence that would most deter them (and having them pick an accountability partner to hold them to it), can be incredibly effective.
- reward the avoidance – each time the person avoids the unhelpful habit (e.g. doesn’t smoke), that needs to be rewarded. Maybe by putting money into a jar so that they can buy something they really love in a week’s time.
Stopping unhelpful habits, so that you can create new healthier behaviours, is a skill worth learning! For more information, check out the books mentioned above or sign up for the James Clear 30 days to better habits free email course. You can also read more tips on how to create new healthier habits in our article, “Tiny Habits = Big Results when changing behaviour.”
For more information or to refer clients who want to change some of their eating habits, please get in touch with the dietitians at Specialist Nutrition Rehab at firstname.lastname@example.org or 0121 384 7087.
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