Going off Autopilot to make Behavioral Changes

July 2, 2014

Three_Step_ProcessDo you ever start the day with good intentions to change a bad habit, “today is the day I quit smoking,” and by the end of the day feel frustrated because you found yourself with a cigarette in your hand without even realizing it? Does it mean you were not serious in the first place…that you don’t really care about quitting that much? Does your wife feel like you don’t care enough about her to really quit? That is a lot of emotional pressure when the reality is that you are likely struggling to change a habit that is so ingrained in your routine and life that it is “automatic.” It happens without even thinking about it.

Behavioral scientists describe habits as a three-step process. First is a cue that triggers a person to start a particular habit. For example, if you always smoke a cigarette when you get in the car, thinking about the car or seeing the car might be enough to trigger you to decide to smoke. Second is the routine, which is the actual habit sequence. This is your brain running on “automatic” mode, just doing what it has learned to do in a particular order of events. In this example, you think about smoking a cigarette as you walk to your car, you sit down, start the car, lower the window, and light up before you buckle up. Third is the reward, which is the good feeling that nicotine gives your brain which ingrains this habit sequence moving forward. You brains says “I can look forward to driving because I get my nicotine treat when I get in the car.” And if it happens every time you get in the car, it is not likely you are thinking about it consciously any longer. Smoking is simply something that goes with driving (and maybe a cup of coffee, or the walk to your office, or after lunch).

So, how do you get off “automatic” pilot? You need to examine the different pieces of the habit (cue, routine, reward) and give yourself as many opportunities as possible within that sequence to make a new choice.

First tackle the cue. If you know you’d usually smoke in the car, clean it out and remove all reminders of cigarettes and make sure there are no hidden packs (if there are cigarettes in the glove box, you will probably be smoking by the end of the drive)!. Maybe you put a big red sticker on the steering wheel that says “No Smoking Today!” – something to get your attention and remind you of your goal! Next replace the automatic routine of smoking with a new one: walk to the car thinking about your clean lungs, sit down and buckle the seatbelt first, then start the car, pop a mint in your mouth, and start driving. The new routine should be simple, rote, cued to start, and lead to a reward (even a small reward in the moment can help, like a mint). It can also help to add in another bigger reward at the end of the day, or week, or month for having success. Keep a paper calendar on your passenger side car seat and put in a big fat red zero for every day you don’t smoke in the car and let yourself get take-out from a favorite restaurant in exchange for not smoking at the end of the week. In the end, using both immediate and delayed strategies are helpful in the very beginning of a change – as you will need something to look forward to other than that cigarette!

Many people get bogged down with the feeling that this kind of approach is infantile (who needs big red zero’s or gold stars?!) or should be avoidable if you are “strong” enough. Don’t fall into this trap! True strength is using the knowledge science offers and putting it to good use for your health and happiness. Do not underestimate the powerful reward circuitry at work in your brain that is holding this smoking habit in place. It’s really not a fair fight if you don’t give yourself some appealing rewards as replacement and as boosts of motivation when you need it. The rewards also do not have to be “gifts” to yourself, they can be psychological, like taking some time each night before bed (or as you walk towards your car as a cue to start the new routine) to envision the children or grandchildren you may now get a chance to see. A reward could also be giving yourself permission to do something that helps “compete” with the bad habit, for instance, taking breaks for a walk or brief talks with friends at points during the work day (when you might otherwise have taken a “break” by smoking). When it comes to a serious change like quitting smoking, why not pull out all the stops? You want the engine of motivation operating at full strength, not blocked by ideas of how you “should” be able to do it. That includes judgmental thoughts you might have about nicotine replacement options. Research clearly shows that these are helpful tools for quitting smoking when used as directed. Make use of all the tools at your disposal!

So, shake up the automaticity of your cue-routine-reward habit, understand your motivations, and get creative and specific about how best to reward yourself for making successful efforts toward a healthy change.

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