Breaking a Habit Part II: The Stress Doc’s “Top Ten” Habit Transformers

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Here are the Stress Doc’s “Top Ten” skills, strategies and commandments for “Breaking a Habit” and flowing into the New Year:

1. Choose a Habit. Target a habit that not only is objectively dysfunctional but also is a source of palpable psychic pain. Select a self-defeating pattern for which you can potentially focus “constructive discontent.”Here’s a personal example, one that I will draw upon throughout to illustrate the ten-step method of habit transformation. Ten years ago, I undertook a major diet change after unexpectedly learning that my blood cholesterol levels were moderately high. Not being overweight, being basically fit, the scores were startling, anxiety producing and a blow to my ego. In light of a family predisposition to serious heart disease, a number of my eating patterns were definitely self-defeating.A habit to which I had been fairly oblivious was now practically shouting for attention. As Pablo Picasso, the century’s greatest artist observed: “Every act of creation is first of all an act of destruction.” At the beginning of my fourth decade, a state of ignorance and denial had definitely been exploded.

2. Partialize and Assess the Problem. After choosing a target habit, select realistic problem parameters. Break a big problem into manageable bite size pieces. For example, if you want to lose weight, I don’t recommend a cessation of eating. Nor do I favor having your stomach stapled, joining one of those all liquid crash diet programs or popping the latest diet pill fad. Instead, try gaining control by studying ways to reduce the intake of simple sugars and saturated fats (to 25% of your caloric intake, for example). If chronic depression underlies compulsive eating then, instead of diet pills, I’d suggest some psychotherapy, exercise and, even, an evaluation for mood medication by a psychiatrist. (For consulting with an expert, see 5.)

3. Establish a Challenging and Achievable Goal and Time Frame. One key to letting go of an undesirable habit is having somewhere new or something new to go to. Speaking metaphorically, if you are finally motivated to leave an island for which you have tired or outgrown, or are ready to break out from that which keeps you boxed in, you likely need some sense that there is a desired land mass to which you can migrate. Of course, believing you possibly have the resources and skills to cross the ocean is also useful.In other words, establish some challenging yet obtainable goals; if you properly and gradually stretch your horizons and mind-body actions you should reach your desired objectives. Drawing on weight loss, again, here are two illustrative strategies: a) reframe your goal from just losing a specific amount of weight to exploring a new nutritional life style; reduce some of the performance pressure from idolizing the all mighty, magical number, and b) don’t simply state an intention to lose thirty pounds. How about ten pounds in thirty days? Manageable steps in a manageable time table are not only more achievable, but also are healthier for your psychophysiological system. I’m not an advocate of shock therapy as the treatment of choice for habit change. Being startled, confronted and jolted out of denial is another matter.

4. Anticipate Grieving. Both before you start and/or during your habit changing program don’t be surprised if you experience a poignant, if not profound, sense of loss. When I stopped having my nightly pie or pastry, gave up my creamy beef stroganoff soup and decided tuna fish with mayonnaise was not the eleventh commandment, I had a lump (and it wasn’t crab meat) in my throat. I was saying goodbye to old, all too familiar, friends. And, if loss, loneliness, emptiness and depression or separation and performance anxiety are long-standing issues above and beyond your targeted habit, letting go will be especially troublesome. At minimum, a state of psychological withdrawal is a distinct possibility.Another loss may involve the nature of your relationships with those people directly or subtly encouraging or enabling your old, self-defeating pattern. Now I’m not saying automatically drop these friends or associates. However, if your goal is to reduce alcohol consumption, then hanging in the barroom with drinking buddies is not the supportive environment you need. And remember, a non-toxic support system is often essential for life-enhancing change.Learn to set boundaries and accept that some conflict is inevitable when you both shake up and take more control of your world. For example, it’s important to refuse gracefully and convincingly your mother-in-law’s second helping at Sunday dinner when you are feeling full. Take to heart the Stress Doc’s “Basic Law of Safe Stress”: Do know your limits and don’t limit your “no”s!Finally, take solace and hope from the words of wisdom of French author and philosopher, Albert Camus:Once we have accepted the fact of loss we understand that the loved one [or loved habit] obstructed a whole corner of the possible pure now as a sky washed by rain.

5. Consult with a Coach or Counselor. If you can operationalize the previous four strategies, you may be ready to implement effectively your habit and behavior modification program. However, if these steps seem confusing or daunting or, even if they don’t, consider seeking the experience and wisdom of a coach or counselor in this startup phase. A habit breaking coach will help you identify the strengths and vulnerabilities that you bring to the change effort. He or she will: a) assess grandiose, timid or rigid goal-setting expectations, b) provide tips and support for managing the uncomfortable emotions that are likely to surface and c) help establish a gradual stretch learning framework which anticipates forward and backward movement.The smartest move I made to overcome my computer phobia was hiring a computer consultant. She gave me about half a dozen private lessons, walked me through the startup minefield and soothed my impatient and anxious brow. The money I spent on hiring this consultant was easily balanced by the sums (and psychic energy) I saved in not having to go back into psychotherapy over this raw beginner trauma.With my eating transformation, a no-nonsense nutritionist friend read me the “diet act.” She quickly interpreted the meaning of the cholesterol scores. She also explained why change was essential and what specific modifications needed to be made in my routine.

6.Take the Plunge. The objective of planning for negative habit breaking and healthy remaking is not to have everything perfectly figured out before taking the plunge. This is only a formula for endless preparation and procrastination. Jump in. As long as you can tread water and you know whether there are dangerous currents or where the alligators are lurking, you are ready for a baptism. You’ll quickly get feedback regarding what you can and can’t handle, along with available resources. You’ll definitely glean insight regarding vital survival knowledge, skills and critical supports.

7. Seek Ongoing Support. Pairing up with a habit breaking buddy can make the “sturm und drang,” the highs and lows, the ebbs and flows of habit breaking and change less overwhelming and more tolerable. Check in on a regular basis; even an email buddy is good. Share the progress and the setbacks: when you successfully resisted temptation and when, alas, you succumbed to those self- defeating tendencies. (Such as when I couldn’t resist that cherry pie instead of the bagel at the coffee house.)Of course, deviating from your plan is not a terminal offense. A slip up is often a disguised opportunity for understanding the vulnerable link in your habit-change goals, actions and resources. Which leads me to…joining a support group. I do believe in the “higher power” of group synergy. When people come together to confront their self-defeating patterns and distorted self-image, to embrace their pains and strengths while learning from each other new ways of being and doing, then the process of life affirming change is set in motion. And online/chat support groups that target specific problem areas are definitely cutting edge in the behavior modification-transformation arena.

8. Do It By the Numbers. Two numerical principles will help sustain hope and the change effort:a) The 21-Day Principle. Not only is behavior modification an evolutionary process, it often comes in three distinct phases: “Unfreezing-Change- Refreezing.” The first third involves acknowledging the self-defeating patterns and starting to let go. The middle third tries to incorporate new skills, tools, resources and pro-social activities. If the first third is depressing, the middle stage can be anxiety provoking as you awkwardly apply new insights and methods.The final “refreezing” occurs when trial and error, along with practice, leads to those learning clicks and “ahas.” The change starts feeling more natural. Using an example of learning to ride a bike, now you are no longer wobbling and weaving perilously, nor regularly falling off your two-wheeler. You are building up a head of steam and confidence; you’re beginning to see the pass in the impasse. No more is the light at the end of the tunnel the proverbial oncoming train. (Okay, I’ll sign up for an AA group — Aphorisms Anonymous.)Depending on how complex the habit transformation being attempted, you may need more than one 21-day change process. For example, it took about two months for me to shift from dieting (or concern about weight loss) to developing a new and natural way of eating while reducing my cholesterol scores to the low-normal range.Finally, in the second and third stages, you may want to add a related behavior that both helps in the letting go and provides a motivational boost for making and sustaining change. For me, a powerful addition for changing my way of eating was the ritual of daily exercise. (Of course, an aerobic exercise regimen may necessitate another habit transformation process.)b) The 80:20 Principle. Eighty percent of your results are usually produced by twenty percent of your activities. Clearly, this has implications for setting priorities and selectively investing time and energy. And most important, you can drop four-fifths of those nagging distractions without feeling so guilty.

9. Establish a Beachhead. One of the seductive traps about behavior modification is that sometimes there is early rapid learning. And then you hit a plateau. With no new gains (or weight losses) the inevitable frustration, discouragement and self-disparagement quickly ensues. Don’t give up. While simple learning may occur quickly, the complex integration of a variety of tender mind-body patterns proceeds more slowly. Consider these habit breaking war cries: “Establishing a beachhead doesn’t mean you’ve conquered the island.” Don’t get sky-high over quick victories or too deflated with some setbacks. It’s (human) nature’s way to ebb and flow…and to get knocked down. Remember, “many battles are fought and lost before a major undertaking is won.”I’ll close this section with the hopeful insight of the pioneering scientist, Jonas Salk:Evolution is about getting up one more time than we fall down; being courageous one more time than we are fearful; being trusting one more time than we are anxious.

10. Pursue the Path. Many people become so goal and outcome focused that they overlook the importance of process and the quality of the journey. Learning is not finite nor absolute, especially if the transformation attempted touches your mind-body-spirit. As sports psychologist, George Leonard, observed: It’s the path of mastery, not the path to mastery. (See below for my poetic “The 8 ‘P” Path of Mastery.”) Breaking, making and mastering a deep-seated, intricate behavior-learning chain is a lifetime process.When it comes to habit change, one implication of this “path as much as destination” philosophy is to reward your small but significant gains. Don’t wait to achieve your ultimate goal to pat yourself on the back or to share your efforts with others. Reward those procrastination busting steps. And finally, consider embracing my process-pathway mind set: I don’t know where I’m going…I just think I know how to get there!”ConclusionBy exploring and practicing this transformational “Top Ten,” you will create an optimally challenging learning-behavior modification process. With this guide for habit transformation, you will: a) achieve emancipation procrastination, b) tackle a dysfunctional habit, c) get into the flow — whether of a state of consciousness or the ebb and flow of learning and life, and d) evolve new skills and supports while strengthening a belief in your powers to initiate projects, achieve goals and sustain purposeful and healthy change. I can’t think of a better gift to give yourself for the New Year! Or a better way to…Practice Safe Stress!

Mark Gorkin, “The Stress Doc,” Licensed Clinical Social Worker, is a nationally recognized speaker, workshop leader and author on stress, reorganizational change, anger, team building, creativity and humor.