07 January, 2011

Here we are, all set to take on the New Year, including new challenges and New Year resolutions. We all start with good intentions, but as we are all aware, good intentions do not guarantee us the outcomes we want.

How can we stay on track and break old habits?

Remember when you were learning your times tables at school? Some people picked it up straight away; others took time to learn. Some days you may have got the answers right; other days it just did not click.

The same thing happens when we are trying to break an old habit.

Habits are learned. A habit might be nail biting, a poor exercise regime, smoking, interrupting people, or gambling, to name but a few. The one thing all habits have in common is that they are learned behaviours with short-term rewards and long-term costs.

The good thing about this is that just as habits are learned, they can also be unlearned.

Motivation to unlearn (or change) goes through a cycle of different stages:
• Thinking about changing
• Making a decision to change
• Acting on that decision
• Maintaining that action
• Then, either relapsing or exiting from the cycle and breaking the habit.

The most important step in breaking a habit is deciding that YOU want to change. If we are breaking a habit to please someone else rather than ourselves, it can be difficult to maintain the motivation to break the habit.

The next step is to carry out an accurate assessment of the problem through the process of self-monitoring. When does it happen? What are the precursors before the habit? What are the consequences? This self-assessment can lead to a greater understanding, greater control, and a baseline measure of frequency and severity.

From monitoring yourself, you can work out a plan of attack. It might consist of
• Changing what occurs before the habit. Assessment often shows that habits are related to particular situations or emotional states, for example hours of boredom may lead to overeating.
• Changing consequences. At the moment your habit is being maintained be aware of certain short-term consequences or ‘pay-offs’ – these need to be altered. Introduce a system of rewards and incentives to change the pay-offs, for example if you do not like yogurt, every time you have a cigarette have a teaspoon of natural yogurt.

A difficulty that arises when we are trying to break a habit is that we can start out all energised and confident we can stop the habit in its tracks. This is fine, but if we jump into the deep end, we may soon feel like we are sinking, as we do not have helpful coping strategies in place. One way to avoid feeling swamped is to set yourself reduction/increased targets and goals. For example, if you want to start exercising, set a goal to start off small then over time move to more exercise sessions per week. People who run marathons do not just one day get up and start running 42km at a time. They progressively work themselves to that level.

Another way to help you cope when breaking a habit is developing strategies. Try establishing a range of coping strategies that can be implemented when you are feeling particularly vulnerable to resorting to the behaviour. Draw up a list of activities that are incompatible with the habit and distract you from the urge. For example, drinking a glass of water instead of biting your nails, or talking to a friend instead of having a beer.

Working out a list of positive thoughts that you can say to yourself when feeling vulnerable can also help you cope. For example, “I don’t need a drink but I’d like one, if I can resist for the next hour, the urge will reduce”.

One final point is accepting setbacks. Do not be discouraged if you relapse. Relapses are a natural part of progress. Learn from them.

At Relationships Australia, we can assist you in planning for a smoother journey. Call 1300 364 277 or visit www.raq.org.au to find your nearest Relationships Australia branch.