Sunday, January 15, 2012

How to Break a Bad Habit - My Story

There's no mystery to breaking a bad habit. What you do is replace it with a good one.

That, as you know, is much easier said than done.

During the past several months, several factors conspired to cause me to gain weight. I'm not obese. But I'm usually in fairly decent physical condition, and I had gained more weight than I've ever gained in my life. The culprit - the onset of football and basketball seasons, along with the temptation to really enjoy the games by snacking and drinking beer or wine. Then I got an ankle injury, which made it hard to exercise. And finally, the holiday season. Big holiday dinners, sweets and alcoholic drinks being shoved in my face. I got on the scales, sucked in most of the air in the bathroom, and resolved to lose weight.

That meant breaking some bad habits.

I know how this works. I know what to do. It has to do with performing the right action enough times that my brain is reprogrammed to do the right thing automatically. Habit, pattern, routine, skill. The brain doesn't care what you call it. Do it enough times, and the brain cells are stimulated to wire together.

There are two kinds of decisions.
  • A-type. The kind you make automatically, without having to think about it, because your brain cells are physically connected to make you respond that way. This is called a habit.
  • B-type. The kind you make by consciously thinking about what to do - the alternatives, the consequences and the payoffs.
The way you establish an A-type decision pattern is to make a B-type decision often enough to stimulate your neurons to wire together. By the way, the brain doesn't care if the pattern is a good one or a bad one. Either way, do it enough times and the brain cells involved in the pattern will physically connect. Do anything more than once and you're on your way. Keep on doing it that way, and it will become a habit.

Something else is a key part of the process. In the beginning of establishing a new habit, you'll hit a wall of discouragement. Because it's not an ingrained habit yet, you may forget to do it. Or you may not do it very well. And progress is slow. This is frustrating. But it takes time to rewire the brain cells. I call this the "crunch point," because a lot of people quit at this point. They say screw it and go back to an their old, well-established habit.

The key is to keep trying. Try again in spite of failure and frustration - try again and again - to do it right. It helps to have a powerful motivator, a strong reason to persist. And help from others - in the form of feedback, coaching, encouragement and accountability.

My motivators - I didn't like the way I looked. And Type II diabetes - brought on by obesity - killed my overweight mother.

Charles Barkley is right about Weight Watchers. Their support system includes all of the above elements. But I've licked this problem on my own before, and I know I can do it again.

A crisis point came when my wife left to visit her aging parents. My support system was gone for a spell. If I gave in to temptation, I'd be reinforcing the old pattern instead of the new one.

I was left to rely on my own personal strengths - focus, commitment, perseverance, self-awareness, and yes - integrity. Put all that together and you can call it will power.

So what happened? I'll tell you what happened. When my wife returned, I had to get on the scales. I was held accountable. You know, the numbers don't lie.

Thank goodness I weighed one pound less than the week before.

I'm still working on it. I haven't reached my goal, my ideal weight. But it's getting easier to say no to the bad things and yes to the good things. My brain really is reprogramming itself.

Post by Dennis E. Coates, Ph.D., Copyright 2012. Building Personal Strength . (Permission to use image purchased from


Unknown said...

I find making small changes is helpful instead of trying to do a complete overhaul. Good look with your challenge - it's not easy to change a habit.

Alistair Summers said...

There are so many explanations out there about habits and behaviours and how you change them - but I rather liked your explanation.

It's never easy - I'm trying to battle the weight and fitness ones myself. It's common sense as to what to do - but following through is always the hard part.



Cenandra said...

This is a great post one that really brings to like the struggles of weight loss; but the positive of we can do anything we set our minds too!

Thomas Henson said...

Yes having a support group can enhance your chances of success. I started reading Power of Habits, in this book they talk about believing is a key ingredient for establishing these habits.