Do you catch yourself having a cookie every day at three o’clock in the afternoon just because? Routinely staying up too late even though you need to wake up early? And do you do these things despite wanting not to—feeling like you just can’t break the habit?
Before we can make changes to our habits, we need to understand why we do them and what purpose they serve. Once you understand that, you can make strategic changes to replace your bad habits with good ones.
You may think that your habit is simply eating a daily cookie at three o’clock in the afternoon. Eating the cookie is just the result of your habit, which means that something (a thought, feeling, or external cue) happened prior to that cookie which made you want to eat it. This is called the antecedent, the event that comes before the behavior.
In the case of eating the cookie, what happened before that? Did you look at the clock and realize it with 3pm or do you have a daily meeting with your manager at 2pm that always upsets you? Understanding the trigger, whether it’s internal (a thought or feeling) or external (time of day, the presence of other people or events) helps you stop the behavior from happening in the first place by changing your reaction or interpretation to the antecedent.
We often mistake the behavior (eating the cookie) with the consequences. In this case, we think that boredom caused us to eat the cookie. While boredom may have caused the behavior, what was the consequence of the behavior itself? How did eating the cookie make you feel?
On some level, for us to continue to link the antecedent and behavior together, we must find the consequences rewarding. But you might wonder why if eating the cookie makes us feel bad that we continue to do so? It might be that the behavior leads to a very short-term positive effect, which is just enough for us continue doing it again in the future in hopes that it lasts longer. On the other hand, it might reward our initial antecedent thought (“I knew I wouldn’t be able to resist the cookie and here I am eating it.”)
Now that you have a better understanding of what the entire antecedent-behavior-consequence chain is, you can challenge each part of the chain separately to make lasting changes. Start with the antecedent; if feeling stressed at work leads you to eat a cookie which makes you feel better (even if just briefly), start by assessing your reaction to the situation.
Ask yourself the following: why do you feel stressed out? Is it a reasonable response to the situation? What would make you feel less stressed out? How could you change your perspective on the situation so that you don’t need to feel stressed in the first place? You can either change the antecedent (e.g. not walking by the vending machine) or in cases where you can’t control the antecedent, modify your reaction to it (i.e., looking at the vending machine as something that is hurting, not helping your goals).
Now that you’ve changed the antecedent or at least your reaction to it, you need to find a new behavior to replace your old one. It is very difficult to just stop a habit or behavior outright, so it is usually much more effective to replace the undesirable behavior with a desirable one.
Taking the time to prepare a substitute behavior that you can reliably implement will help give you the strength to prevent wavering in the face of the antecedent (trigger). You might have set your mind to walking by the vending machine without buying anything, but if you are really tempted or hungry, you’re still at risk of falling back to your old behavior. Planning to bring an apple to eat or cup of coffee to drink when you walk by the machine to develop a new behavior that is incompatible with your old one.
The last step in changing the behavior change is taking a long hard look at what the old consequence was, how it made you feel, and what kind of reward you need from the new consequence to help reinforce your new reaction to the antecedent and the new behavior you engage in. In other words, if walking by the vending machine and eating an apple instead makes you feel miserable (consequence), how realistic is it that you will continue with your new antecedent-behavior chain?
If the behavior is going to result in an undesirable consequence, you either need to change the behavior or change the consequence. If eating the apple is going to make you feel grumpy, either do something else or pay yourself a dollar for every time you eat an apple instead of eating from the vending machine and use that money to buy something you want.
Once you appreciate how the antecedent affects the behavior and ultimately the consequences, you are better able to see your habits as predictable patterns, not something that just happens outside of your control. Taking the time to critically reflect on why you act the way you do is essential to making long-term changes. If you’re struggling to identify the antecedents and consequences to your behavior, try keeping a journal. Jot down what happened before the behavior (events, thoughts, feelings) and what happened after the behavior (short and longer-term, primarily thoughts and feelings).
Although any change can be difficult, addressing the issue in its entirety will help ensure you make changes that are sustainable and help you give up the bad health habits you’ve been wanting to ditch. Stick with the process; keep a sense of humor, and you will be able to change your bad habits before you know it.