How to Break Bad Habits

I’m a pretty good coach, but I would make a terrible counselor. Whenever I am put in that situation, I get agitated. Why? Because the solution to the person’s problem seems obvious. It’s all I can do to retrain myself from blurting it out.

Recently, my friend and former coach Ilene Muething shared with me this really funny Mad TV skit with Bob Newhart. In it, he plays the role of Dr. Switzer, a psychologist with a simple theory of human behavior. The clip is only six minutes long but worth every second. It’s hilarious.

When it comes to my own problems, things seem a little more complex. The solution isn’t so obvious—at least to me.

Could it be that we are simply addicted to our problems? Think about it: problems often persist because they are meeting some deep need for certainty, variety, connection, or significance. For example:

  • Bill smokes a pack of cigarettes a day. He has tried to quit several times. However, when he begins to feel stressed out, he has to light up to calm down. Could he meet his need for certainty in a more healthy way?
  • Karen is a compulsive gambler. She started out small, but now her addiction threatens to ruin her family financially. She tries to stop and does fine for a while. But then she gets bored and heads to the casino. Could she meet her need for variety in a more healthy way?
  • Ed has tried to lose weight for years. He has tried numerous diets but can’t shed the pounds. Could it be that he is addicted to the connection he feels with others around food? Could he meet his need in a more healthy way?
  • Susan is in a bad marriage. She and her husband are always fighting about something. Though she says she is miserable, she likes the attention she gets when she complains to her friends. Could she meet the need for significance in a more healthy way?

I often wish that Dr. Switzer’s stop-it formula was sufficient.

But real change—real transformation—usually take a little more work. This doesn’t mean that you have to spend years in counseling, but it does mean that you must take action. Here are four steps to get you moving in the right direction:

  1. Select a habit you want to change.
  2. Identify the cue that triggers the behavior (stress, boredom, loneliness, insignificance, etc.).
  3. Understand the need the habit meets (the reward).
  4. Now, without changing the cue or the reward, replace the routine with a new, healthier behavior.

This process is laid out in detail in The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business by Charles Duhigg. I highly recommend it. If you want the “Cliff notes version,” read John Rochardson’s post, “How to Change a Bad Habit into a Good One.”

Question: What habit(s) have you struggled to change? You can leave a comment by clicking here.