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Breaking Bad Habits

A Five-Step Accountability Plan

The concept of New Year’s resolutions has taken a comical turn. Those in the health and fitness industry are all too familiar with clients seeking weight loss solutions after the holidays, only to abandon their efforts by February. Regular gym-goers feel frustrated with the influx of newcomers disrupting their routine. Meanwhile, the media has turned resolutions into a joke, highlighting their high likelihood of failure. Have you found yourself attempting to give up smoking, cut expenses, or set multiple goals for the year to no avail? If this strikes a chord, it might be time to adopt a fresh approach to conquering bad habits. Don't let these hindrances derail your path to wellness.

According to Wendy Wood, PhD, a professor of psychology and business at the University of Southern California, and author of "Good Habits, Bad Habits: The Science of Making Positive Changes That Stick," self-control and willpower have their limits. To truly break negative patterns, we need to change our brains. In fact, whether it's chain-smoking or going to the gym regularly, it's the same to our brain. Something triggers our mind to cause us to behave a certain way, and that behavior cues a reward in our brain, explains Judson Brewer, MD, PhD, the director of research and innovation at the Brown University Mindfulness Center.

To act with more intention and attack the root of the problem instead of beating ourselves up, we need to follow a five-step accountability plan:

  1. Map out your bad habits: To understand why these patterns are happening, we need to identify their triggers, behaviors, and rewards. By writing down these details for each bad habit we have, we can become aware of the trigger-behavior-reward loop that is hardwired into our brains. Awareness is the first step to squashing these habits.

  2. Change the context: Avoiding triggers is key to breaking the bad habit loop. Locations, times of day, and even the people around us can all be subconscious triggers. Taking responsibility for tweaking these cues can make real progress in changing our behavior.

  3. Add friction: Turning a negative behavior into a positive one can be achieved by making it a little tougher to carry out. By adding friction, like slowing down the time it takes to perform the behavior, we can disrupt the automatic response and form new, healthier habits.

  4. Tune real time: Being mindful of our actions in the present moment can change the ingrained habit in our brains. Pausing to think about how we feel during the habit and asking ourselves what we're getting from it can help us realize that the old behavior isn't helpful. Focusing on the rewarding aspects of the new behavior can naturally shift our brains in that direction.

  5. Have a backup plan: Creating an "if/then" plan for moments when progress backslides can help steer us towards a better option. By having an exact strategy in place, we can ensure that we choose the desired alternative when tempted to fall into our old, bad habits.

Breaking the trigger-behavior-reward cycle gets easier with practice. By continuously working through these steps, we can overcome our bad habits and make positive changes that stick. So, it's time to take control, understand the patterns, and transform our behaviors to align with our wellness goals.

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