Kicking bad habits is a step-by-step process


Published: Wednesday, January 18, 2006 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Tuesday, January 17, 2006 at 11:58 p.m.
Want to quit late-night snacking? Stop smoking? Control your temper? Exercise more? Stop procrastinating? Get places on time?
There are legions of experts who can help you - from therapists to hypnotists, from life coaches to motivational gurus - each with their own spin on how to jettison bad habits and create healthful new ones.
However, while the particulars may vary from expert to expert - whether it takes a trance or inner-strength or visualization or writing your goals on paper or watching inspirational movies - a few central tenets do not.
First, don't just focus on the behavior you want to change. Instead, start by changing your thinking. Figure out why you developed the dubious habit to begin with.
Take overeating, for instance. Susan Neri-Friedwald, a behavior-modification expert and motivational coach, says people may eat too much because they associate eating with the loving presence of others around them. Or perhaps they eat because they have low self-esteem, and rather than facing inner demons, they want to believe people don't like them because they are fat.
Maybe the bad habits - whether overeating, drinking too much, smoking, not exercising, procrastinating, shopping too much or gambling - take root when we try to distract ourselves from uncomfortable emotions such as anxiety, fear or anger.
People need to find ways to "manage their stressors," said Debbie Mandel, author of "Changing Habits: The Caregivers' Total Workout for Those Sandwiched Between Children, Aging Parents and Work."
Once you've figured out where the troubling habits come from - a task that may require talking to friends or to professionals - you can begin to figure out positive ways to handle those problems, rather than relying on bad habits.
For instance, says Neri-Friedwald, if you're hooked on doughnuts, cookies and other junk food to keep you going through the work day, instead renew your energy by taking a walk or calling a friend on the phone or going to the rest room and doing jumping jacks. Neri-Friedwald said she's gotten a boost by going out to her car, listening to her radio and singing.
Mandel also recommends exercise as a way of controlling the stress that causes us to revert to bad habits. "I recommend putting on sneakers and walking out the door," said Mandel.
Betsy Collins, marriage and family therapist in Milwaukee, says people need to get better at finding positive ways to soothe themselves. "Think of yourself as a scared pet or a little kid or someone else that needs soothing," she said.
She suggests listening to music, calling a friend, saying nice things to yourself.
The experts also recommend starting small and then letting success build.
Kerul Kassel, a personal and business coach from Orlando, says if, for instance, you want to get better organized at home, make the goal very specific and attainable. "Think specifically about how you want to be organized. I want my kitchen to be organized. I don't want anything on the counters for more than a few hours. Make measurable, specific goals."
As you try abandon a bad habit or start a new healthy one, psychologist Karen Steinberg warns not to fall into the trap of negative thinking if you aren't successful right away. "People get into routines of being unkind to themselves or saying they are stupid or an idiot, that they can never do anything right," said Steinberg.
In this frame of mind, a person who tries to quit smoking and doesn't succeed right away, may consider themselves a failure and not try again.
The truth is, said Steinberg, often it takes several tries to stop a habit like smoking. "The more times people try to stop smoking, the better chances they have of eventually stopping it altogether," said Steinberg.
Steinberg said she believes society contributes to the development of bad habits because people get the message: "You never have to have emotional pain."
"We have lots of things to help people avoid, to distract them from their pain," said Steinberg. "That's the enemy - the worst thing in the world is to have people get into behaviors that are destructive to themselves or others."

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