Step Into a New Habit!

Step Into a New Habit!


Are you looking to drop a bad habit and/or gain a new habit this year?

I began my interest in learning how habits, good and bad, are developed while I was an undergraduate psychology student at Colorado State University. A pivotal moment in my thinking on this topic occurred when I was about 19 years old and participated in a behavioral science experiment involving rats. My assignment was to teach a white rat to press a lever and then monitor its behavior based on different feeding schedules.

In order to deliver the pellet to the white rat, I pressed a button that made a sound just prior to the food dropping into the small cage. As you can imagine, early into the experiment it wasn’t long before my laboratory rat associated sound with the delivery of a pellet of rat food as, observably, it raced to the area near the drop as the sound emitted. The experiment verified that the rat behaved a lot like humans, changing its behavior based on different cues and routines. This included the fact that the rat pressed steadily but more slowly on certain feeding schedules (such as a fixed interval). Interestingly, during the random schedule, the rat pattern of behavior would become quite manic, pressing the bar rapidly and eating even when not hungry.

On any given year, the #1 New Year’s resolution is a wish to lose weight and get into better shape. And, it is common knowledge that most New Year’s resolutions fail; I’ve seen statistics that state that as many as 90% of these resolutions fail. But, if you understand the science behind forming habits you will have a higher rate of success.

You must be more deliberate, sort of like undergoing your own personal experiment. You must examine and track:

  • The triggers/cues – Identify what triggers your behavior. For example, if you are trying to lose weight you may notice that one of the problems preventing your weight loss is that you buy a tasty snack from a vending machine every afternoon when you pass by the machine: it is simply too tempting to pass up the treats inside that you enjoy.
  • The routine/rituals/patterns – Examine your routine. In the above example, you track your behavior and begin to understand that your ritual is typically to pass by the vending machine at a time in the afternoon when you are very hungry because you have been trying to “be good” and eat only salad for lunch.
  • The payoff/reward – There is always a payoff for our behavior and it can take effort, and sometimes others to help us figure out what, ironically, is a reward for our self-defeating behavior. Continuing the above example, the payoff for eating your favorite treat from the vending machine is to help you feel comfortable, energetic, and satisfied.
  • The alternative (It must include a payoff as powerful as the payoff for our negative behavior.) – We must identify a powerful alternative to our self-defeating habit. So, in the above case, you could add protein and a hardy amount of fresh veggies to your salad at lunch and have an afternoon snack before you ever attempt to pass by that vending machine. You could even change your route, thus eliminating the physical cue of seeing your favorite snacks in the vending machine. In this example, these types of alternative behaviors provide new routines and rewards including physical comfort, satisfaction, power to choose whether or not you truly want that vending treat, confidence that you are achieving your goal of self-care, and the hope that you are setting yourself up for weight loss/management.

Not long after I turned 40, like many people, I noticed a few pounds here and there collecting on my body each year. For several years I had a goal to lose that excess weight. But, given that I “sort of” planned to change I continued down my same path: gaining a pound here and there. When I was 45 the excess weight was cumbersome and I started having joint issues, starting with my left knee, impacting my ability to enjoy things, including outdoor recreation. This was clearly, an intolerable limitation for a “Coloradoan” at heart who believes in living within one’s “God-given,” reasonable weight range! Thus, when I was 46, I decided to apply my behavioral sciences background to my own benefit and became determined to get some results. It was at that point that I examined myself and I conducted a rather in-depth personal experiment that lasted about seven months. I began with tracking my behavior: following my triggers, rituals, and payoffs. I then developed and implemented powerful replacements. The end result of the seventh month experiment was solid weight loss and management skills.

Ultimately, I’ve come to respect the difference of between “sort of” setting goals of change and performing a significant, real life experiment that ultimately leads to the results I want to achieve.

© Dr. Lenore Doster, MA, Psy D (January 7, 2014)