By Corrie Pikul
Because putting your mind to it hasn't worked the past four times, we've rounded up five strategies that might be more effective.
Try the Lesser of Two Evils
What to do: Replace the bad habit with a good one—or at least one that's more benign.
Why it works: It's much easier to slightly change a mental pattern than to reconstruct it entirely, says Jeremy Dean, PhD, psychologist and the author of Making Habits, Breaking Habits. Since you've already trained your brain to respond a certain way in a certain situation (wake up, drink coffee), you can "trick" it by directing it to respond to the same situation—with a slightly different activity (wake up, drink green tea).
What habit it helps break: Substitution can probably help you quit Candy Crush—for good, says Jamie Madigan, PhD, a psychologist who writes about the overlap between psychology and video games. There are many reasons why this game is uniquely addictive: mandatory time-outs that make you long to keep playing, one-handed controls that let you play anywhere, notifications that nudge you to sign in and the ability to compete against Facebook friends. But all of these tricks wouldn't matter as much if Candy Crush didn't have so many levels—upwards of 500, at last count. You start playing while waiting to check out at the supermarket and keep playing after you get home, on and off for the rest of the night. Instead, find something else to help you pass the time in line—ideally, a productive habit like logging your exercise on your phone. At the very least, Madigan suggests switching from Candy Crush to a more traditional game that is easier to beat (so, not Angry Birds) or a game that requires real-time interaction from a friend, who can alert you when it's time to stop playing and say, "Go to sleep!"
Make a New Mantra
What to do: Start by asking yourself, "Why do I do this, anyway?" Sure, because you're bored, but what else is happening? Where are you? Who are you with? What do you see, smell or hear? That's your trigger, and let's call it X. The next time X happens (because it will—you cannot rid the world of coworkers bearing baked goods, for example), you need to be ready. You need to have a plan to combat it. That's your Y. Repeatedly remind yourself: "If X happens, I will do Y."
Why it works: You're reminding yourself of your resolution—out loud, and often. Research on both humans and animals suggests that even after bad habits seem to have disappeared, they still lie dormant, waiting to be reactivated, says Dean. If you have a plan for how to deal with that situation, you won't be taken by surprise and default to your old frenemy, the bad habit. (Note: Recent analyses of this strikingly effective technique have shown that it backfires if you say, "If X, happens, I will not do Y." E.g., "If I get hungry while watching TV, I will not have ice cream…or chips…or peanut butter out of the jar.")
What habit it helps break: Snacking ("If I want something to eat while watching TV, I will have a cup of yogurt"), squeezing pimples ("If I notice a red spot, I will dab cover-up on it"), cursing ("If I spill this really full mug of coffee, I will say, 'Flippers!'").
Go for Gold
What to do: Use a calendar or chart to track how many days you can go habit-free. Reward yourself for weeklong winning streaks in a small but meaningful way.
Why it works: It's human nature to appreciate a gold foil star—or a "good job!" Psychologists know this, and so do kindergarten teachers and proactive moms who wallpaper the bathroom with behavior charts. It's also the idea behind Happify, a new emotional-wellness app that helps people build happiness habits via interactive games. Members earn medals by completing activities to help them develop skills like "cope better with stress." Happify's developers have found that users who receive a gold medal in their first set of activities (like a game that makes you quickly react to positive words while avoiding negative ones) go on to complete 48 percent more activities than those who receive a silver medal. That's why Happify, like many games, starts you out with shorter levels and easier goals that help you quickly rack up gold medals. And being constantly reminded of your medal-winning prowess motivates you to sign up to develop more skills (a win-win for both the user and the developers).
What habits it helps break: Habits that cost you money, like buying coffee at the café, because you can put the cash you've save each time you make the drink at home toward something else that you enjoy…like renting an old movie (Goldfinger, On Golden Pond or Fool's Gold come to mind).
Think Long Term
What to do: Accept failure (at first).
Why it works: There's a depressing irony to the way habits work: The more you try not to think about them, the more they dominate your thoughts. This has been proven time and again in different experiments where people were instructed not to think about white bears, or cigarettes, or disturbing emotional memories, or their favorite food. In all cases, the people in the studies began thinking about these things even more than before. The mind starts an unconscious monitoring process to check if you're still thinking about the verboten subject, writes Dean, and then anything that looks vaguely like it triggers the thought again ("That crumpled tissue reminds me of…a white bear"). This may be why people sometimes find that when they first try to change a habit, they actually start doing it more, Dean explains. The resulting disappointment often sends them deeper into the clutches of their vice. Dean suggests viewing this as a "just a phase" in the larger process of breaking a habit—but a phase with an end in sight.
What habits it helps break: Smoking. Surveys show that it takes the average smoker five to seven attempts to kick the habit for good, which is more than double what most smokers would anticipate.
What to do: Keep telling yourself how your life will improve once you're no longer oversnacking or picking or procrastinating. At the same time, remind yourself how unhealthy, unnecessary, distracting or just plain annoying your habit is and how badly you want to change it.
Why it works: It raises the stakes. The more relevant and vivid you can make the negative thoughts of the bad habit, the more likely you are to exercise self-control, writes Dean. These mental caricatures serve as reminders to keep you on track. Multiple experiments have shown that those who attach strong feelings to a habit are more motivated to change than are those who treat the habit like it's no big deal.
What habits it helps break: Start with things that gross you out—when you're not the one doing them (like nail-biting, hair-chewing). They're easier to visualize and harder to justify to yourself, since you've already seen on others that those habits are unattractive.
Also on HuffPost:
1. The Laptop-Case KO
In North America, personal space is at a premium. Said space feels even smaller when the freelance economy has many of us working remotely and therefore carrying our lives with us like free-WiFi-seeking pack llamas. Which is why it seems like every time you get into an elevator or on a plane or in line at Starbucks, you are bound to be pummeled by a laptop case (or three). Between people’s duffel-size handbags, the purse-imitating dog carriers and the rolling suitcase of the business traveler, it’s a miracle we get through any day without getting bonked into. Next time you get clocked with the nunchuk-like edge of a MacBook Air, think of all the times you’ve inadvertently done the same thing to someone else with your own unwieldy bundle. Now, head out into your own allotted part of the universe with an awareness of how much space you take up -- bag of all earthly possessions included. <em>CORRECTION: A previous version of this slide incorrectly calculated the area of personal space allotted to an individual; that math has been removed. Some people have more personal space, some have less. It's crowded, is what we're saying.</em>
2. Treating The World As Your West Palm Beach Condo
You know how your grandmother’s condo in Florida is a sauna, in a way that makes the Everglades feel refreshing? She’s 95, so it’s okay. If you are not 95, then it is not okay to inflict your preferences in temperature, lighting and air freshener on innocent passersby. Dear always-freezing coworker huddled by a space heater: Look around. Are your cubemates sweating? Could you battle your building’s overenthusiastic air-conditioning by wearing a sweater instead? Sensitive-eyeballed shift manager: Maybe you could try tinted glasses rather than turning down all the lights so that your entire staff is afraid they’re going to go blind. Yes, we all have our sensitivities and they aren’t all the same, so it might be helpful to remember that your solution may become someone else’s problem.
3. Forgetting To Attach The 'See Attached'
We get it. You’re busy. <em>Everyone’s</em> too busy, and as <a href="http://opinionator.blogs.nytimes.com/2012/06/30/the-busy-trap/">a recent New York Times piece suggests</a>, we’re addicted to the buzz of busy-ness. It’s the human condition to think <em>our</em> busy is busier than anyone else's. Still, even someone who is not nearly as busy as you are is mired in some kind of multitasking life. So when you need to send the spreadsheet, the sales dek or the screenshot that will ensure that the IT department sees exactly what frazzled your laptop at 1 a.m., take one more moment to make sure -- double and triple sure -- that the spreadsheet, the sales dek or the whodunnit screenshot is actually attached.
4. 'Are You Going to Eat That?'
I admit that I have learned this the hard way: It is not a good practice to poach bites off of other people’s plates. Even if you are afflicted with the rare-but-serious Ordering Regret Syndrome. When food moochers and hungry people wielding forks combine, the results are rarely good.
5. Instagram OCD
What with the modern multitude of ways to take photos, make them look amazing and share them while waiting breathlessly for instant approval, we’ve all become veritable <a href="http://www.cindysherman.com/">Cindy Shermans</a>. Yes, it is possible to make the world envy your beautiful breakfast, your good hair day, your super-biggest most-fun-ever night. But when you’re missing the fireworks because you’re forcing a friend to take “candid” after “candid” after “candid” of you with your iPhone so that you remember the moment you actually missed while posing for the picture… it might be time to stop clicking. Or -- since who can actually do that -- try carrying a film camera around. In addition to being an anachronistic conversation piece, it will give you a way to record a moment the way it is (closed eyes, weird shadows and all) and keep going, without editing your life story as you go.
6. Offering Pretend Lasagna
There are fewer questions less answerable than “What can I do to help?” It’s bad enough when lobbed at a harried hostess, but even more unanswerable for someone who’s really struggling. The urge to ask is understandable: Chances are, you don't know what someone who has suffered a terrible loss or is struggling with some unthinkable disease has gone through. So you ask the question 47 times, and when the person doesn’t have a response, you throw your hands up and think, “Well, I tried...” And here's the thing: You do get friend credit for trying. But you get even more for actually <em>doing</em>. Are they not responding to calls but seem happy to get emails? Are they drop-in averse? Start with a <a href="http://www.oprah.com/relationships/How-to-Help-a-Friend-in-Need">small, concrete way to make the day easier</a>, whether it’s having groceries delivered or coming over to walk her dog, and do it in the least obtrusive manner possible.
7. The Homework-Assignment Goodbye
You had the nicest time at the dinner party/playdate/poker night, which took three months and an online poll to schedule, and so upon leaving, you exclaim, “We have to get together again soon -- maybe even next week. Call me!” What you meant to say is, “How much fun was that?!” or "I so loved seeing you," but without meaning to, you’ve turned a pleasantry into an obligation. Emphasize in your goodbye what you really felt -- the joy part -- and if you actually do want to see the person again soon, you can extend a specific invitation... later (e.g., “Would you like to go see the new Artist We Both Enjoy exhibit next Saturday at 3?”).
8. The Inadvertent Conference-Call Radio Show
What does it sound like when you put someone on hold? Do you know? This is not a Zen koan. The answer is... of course not; you’ve never put yourself on hold. Us, either. But consider the possibility that when you sneak off a conference call to answer another line, the entire team in Singapore or Cleveland or wherever is being treated to the un-dulcet tones of some Pandora channel or ads from the Egg Board (as we were abashed to learn just last month).
9. Dancing The Concert-Line Ticket-Searching Two-Step
Waiting in lines is fun for exactly no one. The good news is that as a temporary citizen of a long line, we can make life better for our fellow waiters by thinking one step ahead. Take out the ticket before getting to the concert or movie entry, sort out the change while languishing in line for the tollbooth -- and we all can get where we need to be that much faster.
10. The Smartphone Email Abyss
This may by the most helpful email you'll ever need, so feel free to copy and paste it: <i>Thanks for your email! I got it and will respond later, when I’m not walking down the street staring at my iPhone like a technologically overfed nincompoop.</i> Or something along those lines. Here's why we're giving ourselves this reminder: We all thought, when we got our first smartphones, that they would make it so much easier to keep up with our email. Never did we think we would stumble into the smartphone email abyss, wherein one sees a message on one’s phone, one thinks that the well-thought-out and non-thumb-typed response will happen later, and then one completely forgets about the email, which no longer shows up as unread. Meanwhile, the sender of the original email thinks you’ve fallen off the face of the planet. A quick acknowledgement, an even quicker evening scan of the day's emails (mark things as “unread” if you need a reminder that the real response is still due) and we're good.