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Four Steps to Replacing Bad Habits

They say you canít teach an old dog new tricks, but the truth is you can, it just takes work. The problem is, by the time a dog is "old" they have developed habits, both good and bad. When you try to teach them a new, "good" habit, it means they have to break the old, "bad" one.

The same is true with people. Getting rid of a bad habit, or acquiring better ones is a terribly difficult task. This is only made more complicated by failed attempts at change. When a person tries to kick a bad habit and canít do it, they feel like a failure and are less likely to try again.

The problem with that attitude is many bad habits such as drinking alcohol, overeating, smoking and using illegal drugs are inherently unhealthy and can lead to early death. Breaking those types of habits is essential. It is all the better if they can be replaced with good habits, because the feeling of achievement from establishing positive behaviors is self-perpetuating. Successfully incorporating a good habit into your life, in and of itself, encourages you to keep trying to better yourself.

A new branch of psychology studies confident, happy people in an effort to determine what makes them thrive. This "positive psychology" has discerned four techniques proven to help people make constructive behavioral changes.

4 Steps to Breaking a Habit

  • Rather than simply trying to rid yourself of a bad habit, replace it with a good habit (often, a somewhat similar behavior is best). For example, if you are trying to quit smoking, take up chewing sugarless gum. It may require a person to try more than one replacement for the bad habit to find something that sticks, but as long as the negative behavior is replaced with a more positive one, the effort is worth it.
  • One of the best replacement habits is also one that generally aids in habit change Ė exercise. The rush of endorphins from exercise makes a person feel good, enabling them to feel even better about the changes they are making. If the person is using exercise as a substitute for a bad habit, it makes the effects of exercising even more pronounced.
  • A basic principle of psychology says that when a behavior is followed by a reward, the behavior is reinforced. This step is important, because people often focus on the negative when trying to change habits; one relapse can make them feel like they have failed and cause them to wallow in negative behaviors. If they reward the successes instead, the focus is more properly centered on what they have accomplished, rather than on the instances of failure.
  • Limit where and when the bad habit is allowed. For example, someone who is trying to quit smoking could limit the opportunity to once or twice a day (at specified times) and in a less than comfortable place (for example: a stool or standing outside with no shelter regardless of the weather). Knowing that there is a time when the habit is allowed makes it easier to push back cravings as they strike. While this step is unlikely to kick the habit on its own, it is often a helpful first stage.

Most people have a difficult time breaking bad habits. However, by following one or more of the steps outlined above, you stand a much better chance of successfully replacing your bad habit with a healthier positive one.

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