Habit Hacking

The other day I was on the phone coaching a client.  She had just recently successfully achieved success in breaking a long standing habit of sitting down with a glass of wine to watch TV.  This habit had become a real issue because it spawned a host of other issues that all negatively impacted her body change goals.

Watching TV was associated with wine and both were associated with poor sleep. TV watching turned into staying up much later than she wanted and drinking wine turned into waking repeatedly in the night.  This then led to feeling fatigued and lethargic in the morning which led to an inability to adhere to a morning exercise routine she use to love.  Her diet was impeccable, but her TV and wine habit were creating a domino effect that was keeping her stuck.

So, here is what we did.  My first rule about breaking difficult habits is to tackle one thing at time.  There were two negative habits, TV watching and wine drinking.  I knew we could not attack both at once.  My next rule of breaking a habit is to let my client dictate the approach with me simply guiding them and providing feedback.  We discussed which habit was most detrimental and she thought, and I agreed, that staying up late with the TV on was shortening her time in bed. So, we decided to change that first.

Now, this women LOVED TV  and one show in particular.  So, that show was non-negotiable, it had to stay.  So, we decided together she would keep that show. We then talked about what other things she just loved to do.  I asked her if she had no other worries or stresses and could do anything else at night what would she do?

She listed the following……..a long hot shower, a long hot bath, surfing the internet, go for a walk with her husband, and talk on the phone with her girlfriends. Since her husband often liked to work in the evening we scrapped that idea because it was too reliant on him being on board for the walk. We also decided against surfing the internet, because it posed the same risks as watching TV. Talking to friends required friends to be available.

We talked about how a long shower or a bath were something she could do alone.  These also had other benefits as she said after a shower or bath she did not like to eat anything and like to get in bed while she was relaxed. This was a perfect start. We did nothing about the wine habit.  She asked about it and I said have the wine as you normally do. We were not addressing this, as changing too much at once often leads to failure at both.

There was one small issue I knew from experience we needed to adjust and that was the transition to watching TV to her new routine. To address this we needed to overcome the cues that would trigger her habitual actions.  So, we talked about what she did after her favorite show was over. She would get up and usually pour another glass of wine before coming back to the TV. This transition was important. She had a routine we needed to change. Her new instructions were to get up, turn the TV off, pour another glass of wine if she wished and go start a bath taking care to light some candles (the way she liked). She could then drink the wine in the bath.

We also talked about her paying close attention to old cues that told her to stay and watch TV.  She had to make sure the TV was off before the next shows previews started or the intro music to the next show came on. She then needed to focus on the reward of relaxing time in a bath, something she loved. To prime the craving for this all she needed to do is imagine being relaxed in the shower or bath.

Not only did this new approach work for her, but it had an unforeseen consequence. The wine habit was tied to TV NOT to taking a bath. Her show that she really liked was earlier in the evening and she did not always go for wine at this show, but it was more associated with later shows. Also, she found she did not like wine with her bath and it certainly did not work when she decided on a long shower instead.

What she found is she immediately started drinking less wine and instead begin a ritual of herbal tea to have in her bath. She reported earlier times to bed, better sleep and a more motivated and energetic morning of exercise. One small habit change led to a domino of positive effects opposite from the negative impact of her old habits.

So, this was a success.  You might be thinking this was an accident and a lucky change.  Perhaps, but I have seen this same type of approach work for hundreds of my patients and coaching clients. What many do not realize is there is now a well established science of habit formation that when understood can make change much easier than you think.

How to break old and make new habits

I know you want to know how you can do this yourself, so let me give you some insight about how it is done:

  • The first thing to know about habits is they follow a pattern.  There is a trigger or cue, a habitual practice or routine, and a reward. But this alone is not enough for the habit to form, this requires a neurological expectation (aka a craving).
  • The reason the habits can become so engrained in us is because they induce desire and expectation. Habits, whether healthy or not, are driven by the expectation for a reward whether conscious or unconscious. In other words, habits are repeated because we start to crave the reward.
  • To change a habit you first need to recognize what the trigger for them is.  In the case of my client the trigger was the turning on of the TV at the end of dinner and the end of one show and the beginning of another. Once you are clear what the triggers are, now you can control the next step which is the routine.
  • A trigger leads to a routine and it is that routine overtime that leads to the reward and the craving for that reward.  In this case the trigger of TV meant the reward of wine, and the trigger of a new show starting often meant a stronger craving for wine.
  • So, after recognizing the trigger we replaced it with a new routine.  The new routine involved preparing a bath, lighting candles, and taking a bath. In this case, simply changing the routine changed the need for wine. So, perhaps the wine was not the real reward this client was after.  Maybe she was really after relaxation? In any event, the new routine resulted in a new craving for the clean, relaxed, refreshed feeling of relaxing in a bath.
  • One thing this teaches us about habit is that you never want to replace the routine of one habit with no routine at all.  We took the TV routine and replaced it with the bath routine.  So, if principle one is to change one thing at a time, then principle two is to never replace a habitual routine with no routine, but rather replace it with an alternate routine.
  • So, if you know the triggers for a habit and you can replace the old habitual routine with a new practice you have a chance at creating a new habit.
  • The reward of the habit often stays the same.  In this case we discovered that the wine was not the reward at all, but rather both the TV and the wine were part of the habitual routine used to find relaxation.  Only problem was that the habits only worked in the short-term, but were working against relaxing her in the long-run because it interrupted sleep and interrupted her goals of exercise, high energy and weight loss.
  • My third and fourth principle of habit change in this example are to make the new habit as easy or easier than the thing it will be replacing (or at least as enjoyable or more enjoyable) AND make sure the new thing is something that is individualized to you and does not come out of a desire to make others happy or is reliant on others participation. It has to be something that works and is individualized for you.