In my life and when coaching others, I find it is sometimes easier to replace a habit that we want to change with another habit, rather than focusing solely on not doing the thing we no longer want to do. Why is this?
Habits are a part of our lives for different reasons. A common reason is to help us change the way we feel. Let’s look at a common habit a lot of us have but would rather not – emotional eating. Why do we eat when we’re feeling stressed, anxious, bored, lonely, etc.? One reason is it changes the way we feel. We feel a certain way, we don’t want to feel that way anymore, so food serves as the vehicle to help us change the way we feel.
Habits can be linked to specific emotional states. I had been aware of this concept for a while, but it became extremely clear to me when I was studying improv at The Groundlings Theatre & School. A lot of the work we did was centered around building characters. The thing is, we couldn’t just get on stage, change our voice, and give our character a bunch of random goofy behaviors; each character’s psychology, physicality, and behaviors had to be meticulously thought through. If our character had a certain reoccurring behavior (a habit), it needed to be for a reason. One of my characters had the habit of rubbing his forearm. Rather than randomly rubbing his forearm for no reason, he did it specifically when he felt nervous. When he didn’t feel nervous, he didn’t rub his forearm. It was a behavior linked to a specific emotional state. Behaviors can be unconscious (we aren’t aware we are doing them) or conscious (we know we are doing them) efforts to calm ourselves down (again, to change the way we feel).
Because of this, it is sometimes easier to find an alternative habit, than to simply stop a habit. Since some habits are in place to help us change how we feel, simply stopping them still leaves us with that uncomfortable emotion (anxiety, boredom, frustration, etc.). This makes it very easy to slip back into the behavior that’s undesired. It may be easier to stop the undesired behavior if we have an alternative way for changing how we feel, rather than just sitting and waiting for the feeling to pass. Now with that said, sitting in the moment and recognizing that emotions are temporary and will pass is an effective strategy. Indeed, we shouldn’t confuse avoiding emotions, with managing our emotional response, which is why it is also useful and important to sit with how you feel. Simply put, habit replacement is just another strategy you can use if trying to stop a habit or wait out an emotion isn’t working in a particular situation.
When selecting an alternative behavior/habit/vehicle, here are the criteria I like to use:
- The alternative must support my health
- The alternative must support my long-term goals
- If the previous behavior was something I did to help me change the way I feel, the new behavior must be effective in changing how I feel (because if not, I’m not actually going to do it)
- The alternative must be convenient
An example swap I teach (and a strategy I use myself) is:
Old behavior = Eat high-calorie food when I feel stressed
New behavior = Go for a walk and listen to music that helps me to feel happy when I feel stressed
This new behavior checks all four criteria and results in you feeling even better than you would have had you used the old one.
If you find this interesting and helpful, go to my 3DMJ Vault free course titled, “Sustainable Fat Loss”. Skip to chapter 2, “Emotion Management”. I go into much greater detail about the topic of habit replacement there.
If you have healthy behaviors/habits/vehicles you’ve used to replace old unhealthy ones, please share those in a comment below so others can test them out.