OUTSMART YOUR HABIT
Essentially, breaking a habit is learning to do something different in the presence of the same cues. Since it is difficult to avoid cues entirely (the limitation of sidetracking), a better approach is to leave the stimuli alone and to do something different in their presence.
In 1924, Mary Cover Jones published her experience helping a young boy named Peter overcome his fear of rabbits. Her most successful strategy was to allow Peter to eat his favorite food while he observed a rabbit from a distance. Using the threshold method, the rabbit was brought closer and closer. But Peter didn’t mind because he was enjoying his snack.
When my kids were little, they would come in crying and trying to talk at the same time. I grabbed tissue and had them blow their noses. You can’t cry and blow your nose at the same time. You can’t sneeze and keep your eyes open at the same time. You can’t be angry and at peace at the same time.
People who want to stop smoking often start chewing gum. You can’t chew gum and smoke at the same time. They are incompatible responses. Systematic desensitization is based on the premise that you can’t be afraid and relaxed at the same time.
Applying It To Real Life
You can’t eat sugar and __________ at the same time. Fill in the blank with something you would eat: celery, carrots, nuts, sugarless gum, etc. Anything will do.
Anything that occupies the mouth will do but the best substitutes match the target’s characteristics. The more identical elements you can find the better.
Replace chewy food with chewy food. Hard food with hard. Watermelon is a great replacement for oranges and fruit juices. But it is not a very satisfying substitute for chocolate cake.
Some objects don’t have direct replacements. Do the best you can.
Intrusive thoughts are best handled by replacing them with other intrusive thoughts. If images of car crashes dance in your head, try chanting or singing a song you can’t get out of you head. Replace one intrusive thought with another.
Replace multitasking with a new task. When things are new, we have to focus our attention on them. When learning to drive, you can’t do it with the radio on and talking to everyone in the car. You must focus. It will become automated later on but at the beginning a new task can substitute for a multitasking session.
Replace multitasking with mindfulness. Practice thinking about and appreciating what you are doing while you are doing it. Substitute your multitasking with breathing, meditative words, inspirational affirmations or music.
Although phobias are best dealt with by applying the threshold method, you can add incompatible responses too. In fact, the process of systematic desensitization relies on your remaining relaxed as you climb the stimulus hierarchy. Being relaxed is incompatible with feeling stress or fear.
Take a look at a habit you want to break.
What behavior would be incompatible with it?
Is the substitute a positive behavior?
Replace your bad habit with a good habit.