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Dan Liljenquist: Bad habits can be tackled and overcome

Published: Thursday, Jan. 2 2014 12:00 a.m. MST

On Monday night this week, in keeping with a Liljenquist family tradition, my wife and I sat down with our children to review 2013, celebrate successes, analyze shortcomings, and discuss how we can make this new-year the best year yet. Using a photocopied duplicate of the original, ruler-precise, hand-drawn “personal discipline” chart my father used 30-plus years ago to teach me about developing good habits, we helped each child create a daily checklist of activities that will help them reach their personal goals. Hopefully, our children, equipped with their individualized “personal discipline” sheets, will be ready to excel in 2014.

The turn of a new year is a natural time to reevaluate, to re-commit, to resolve to be our best selves. Unfortunately, for most of us, the commitment to change only lasts through a few, guilt-plagued weeks as we fall back, time after time, into the self-destructive routines we were so determined to overcome. We may even catch ourselves in the very act of violating our resolve, waking as if from a trance with a stack of Oreo cookies and a glass of milk in our hands, feeling powerless to control our appetites while downing the caloric excess with a extra dose of self-loathing. But we need not fail in changing bad habits if we understand how habits actually work and if we train ourselves to be intensely, conspicuously aware of our own responses to habit cues.

In his excellent book “The Power of Habit: Why we do what we do in life and business”, award-winning New York Times business reporter Charles Duhigg explores why habits exist and how we can change them. Specifically, Duhigg narrows in on the brain physiology that reinforces the “habit loop” – a continuous cycle of cue, routine and reward that underlies all habitual behavior, both good and bad. In essence, habits are shortcuts our brains use to automate responses, whether physical, mental or emotional, to specific cues or stimuli, leading to specific rewards. As habits are reinforced by each cycle of the “habit loop”, cues and rewards meld together, producing intense anticipation and powerful cravings. With such powerful stimuli, the routine of satisfying the craving becomes almost automatic, unconscious.

Duhigg, backed up by significant scientific research, powerfully argues that bad habits can be reprogrammed, with significant, focused effort. The first step in overcoming bad habits is to identify the cues and underlying rewards that drive habitual behavior. This can require a great deal of self-examination and quiet reflection, especially for those habits that are deeply engrained in the psyche. But only by becoming acutely aware of specific habit triggers and understanding the desired rewards, can an individual interrupt the cycle and insert new, harmless routines to close the habit loops. With practice, new routines can replace the old routines, rendering damaging habits inert.

“The Power of Habit” is a must read for those who are serious about breaking free from the tyranny of bad habits. I personally found it liberating, and successfully applied its logic to reprogram a few bad habits of my own in 2013 that I could never seem to overcome. It has been an immensely gratifying, confidence-building experience for me. So much so that I am excited to tackle my next set of bad habits in 2014.

Stephen Covey once wrote, “Our character is basically a composite of our habits. Because they are consistent, often unconscious patterns, they constantly, daily, express our character.” It is my hope in 2014 that we will, each of us, examine our self-destructive habits closely, understand them, interrupt them, and replace them. We can do it.

Dan Liljenquist is a former state senator and U.S. Senate candidate.

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