Can you change a behavior?

By Melissa Montgomery, MA., Ed., LPCC-SUV, CDCA

Our brains like “autopilot”:  do the same thing, at the same time, in the same way to save energy and thought.  Many of us have habits we say we would like to change but don’t know how to change, so we keep them.  What could happen if you really examined the forces keeping you stuck in behavioral loops?  People are all different and have different cravings and tolerances for drastic change or change at all.  Focusing on a small change can make a huge impact.

Too good to be true? No, not really.  Here is a simple way to change a habit loop:

Examining Habit Formation, Cues, Routine and Reward

Each person’s habits are driven by different wants.

Individuals and habits are different so the specifics of diagnosing and changing patterns in our lives differ from person to person.   Understanding the want, the cue, the routine and the reward can help you identify and interrupt a habit as to create a more preferred outcome.

Once you have diagnosed the habit loop of a particular behavior, you can look for ways to replace unwanted behavior with new routines.  Each habit abides by a set of rules, when you understand these rules, you can gain control over them.

The three steps involved are:

  1. Identify the routine
  2. Experiment with Rewards
  3. Isolate the cue
  4. Have a plan for change

1.      Identify the Routine

Run through a scenario with specifics-who is involved, time of day, place and see if this is a re-occurring situation.  My guess is you will see something like a movie clip you have experienced every day or most days at the same time, same situation.

Experiment with Rewards

It might take several days or attempts to determine a more suitable reward that satisfies the craving.   For example, if the routine is for a parent to yell at the child when they walk in the door with muddy shoes (making the reward tension release), the new routine can be to count to 100 and then calmly speak to the child.  The new reward will have to as satisfying as the tension release created in routine #1.  Meaning:  the reward has to be good enough to produce some change!

Isolate the Cue

Time, location, people involved, specifics.  Why now, why this?  What is the thing that starts the whole cycle in motion?  Hunger?  Anger?  Seeing your mother in-law?

Have a Plan

Now that we know the cue, rewards and routine, we can implement a plan to change the routine when we experience the cue.  This increases our likelihood of receiving the benefit from the improved reward.  Recognize the cue-use that information!  Change the routine to get what you actually want-not just what you are used to.


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