Friday, February 20, 2015

How To Break a Bad Habit

Oft have I mentioned Aristotle’s great insight about therapy: the best way to break a bad habit is to replace it with a good habit. It’s far more effective than just trying to break a bad habit.

Now, Art Markman, a psychology professor at the University of Texas at Austin has discovered that Aristotle was right. Since he does not credit the philosopher, I suspect that he learned it independently.

If you're trying to break a bad habit — don't. You're better off replacing an unwanted behavior with a better (or at least neutral) one than trying to teach yourself to stop doing something altogether, according to Art Markman, a University of Texas at Austin psychologist who studies how people learn. 

Markman explains why this works and why it’s so difficult just to break a bad habit:

Here’s the place where most people fail when they’re [trying to] change behaviors. They start by saying, I need to stop biting my nails. Now, the problem with that is that’s a negative goal. Why is that a problem? Because it’s something you don’t want to do. And the reason that that’s a problem is because your habit learning system is an active system. It wants to associate behaviors with the environment. If you say I don’t want to do something, then what you’re doing is focusing yourself on not acting. 

When Markman discovered that he had been biting his nails while he was reading at his desk, he bought himself some desk toys. Instead of biting his nails he fiddled with the toys.

The result:

His desk is now littered with a Slinky, a toy car, and figurines of Gumby and Poky, among other baubles. Apparently he just needed something to fiddle with as he read silently at his desk, because it worked; he hasn't reverted to his nail-biting habit in years. Although now, he says, "I'm addicted to desk toys." 

Another obvious example comes from Alcoholics Anonymous. To overcome the habit of going to a bar and having a few drinks after work, AA tells people to go to AA meetings… even to make a habit of it.

1 comment:

Dennis said...

I am not too sure how this works for people whose's occupation requires hours of practice training one's muscles and body to react the same way so that when one is under the pressure of performance they can allow their mind to concentrate on musicality or the prime emphasis of that particular profession's requirements. The pressures of performance are such that one does develop bad habits that need to be addressed by going back to the basics. Note one of the reasons why professional golfers fail is that they allow the conscious mind to get in the way. I would suggest that happens to musicians, et al. One has to learn to trust the subconscious mind.
In many cases one is also trying to allow the subconscious mind to take precedence over the conscious mind which is so much slower, structured and very pedantic. The subconscious is where the creative surge lives.
One is still replacing a bad habit with a good one, but in the confines of the requirements of one's particular profession.