When You Can't Stop a Bad Habit

woman eating hamburger
Here's a principle for breaking the power of a bad habit. (iStockPhoto)

How many times have you told your daughter to stop running in the house, eating with her mouth full, pestering you, taking a toy from her little sister, hitting her little brother, talking back to you, stop cutting her hair? It seems the more you tell her what not to do, the more she does it.

It is a human response that once an action is in motion, we want to keep it in motion. As adults we have the same problem as our children. There are things we tell ourselves to stop, but we don't listen to our own voice of reason.

Does this make any sense at all?

There's no end to the stuff I hear people say they want to stop. I want to stop smoking, drinking alcohol, drinking diet soda, drinking coffee, eating fast food, procrastinating, buying stuff I don't need, yelling, screaming, getting angry, being depressed, eating sugar, eating when I'm not hungry, watching so much television, being involved with pornography, having an affair, living with someone I'm not married to.

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There are things we want to do. I want to lose weight, exercise, have a pleasant attitude, volunteer at a local homeless shelter, give more money to charity, teach a children's Sunday School class, do something meaningful for society, lead a small group, write a book, start a nonprofit to save animals, disciple a new believer, be more involved with my children, get a better job, save more money, invest for retirement, go back to school.

If I could just stop bringing home all this stuff, I could de-clutter my house and have company over. If I didn't watch so much television, I could take an online course and get a better job. If I stopped being involved with pornography, I could get rid of my shame and be involved more at my church.

Even though we cognitively know that losing weight is more important than eating fast food, we continue to participate in the thing we don't want to do at the expense of the thing we SAY we want.

There is a principle at work here. The issue is the universe cannot tolerate a void.

Our brain is wired with habits. It's much like getting up in the morning and brushing our teeth. It's an automatic behavior. Think of what it would take for you to stop brushing your teeth. Yes, it's a great habit to have, no doubt about it. The point is, if you were going to stop brushing your teeth, you'd have to do something that gave you the same kind of reward brushing your teeth does.

To stop a bad habit, we need to replace it with a good habit that has a similar, but higher reward value than the old habit. To stop going through fast food, we have to think about the reason we are doing it and the reward we get as a result. For me, I used to get drive-through when I felt overwhelmed after a hectic day. I thought I was giving myself a reward to make me feel better.

Cognitively, I understood fast food really didn't make me feel better, it just anesthetized the discomfort for a while. I did a couple of things to stop that negative behavior. First, I began to recognize when I'd had an overwhelming day and before I got to the place of wanting a fast-food fix, I would immediately play soothing music. I might intentionally take a different way home so as not to go past fast food restaurants and give myself time to unwind.

At the beginning of the day, I would plan what I'd have for supper and have it cooking in the crockpot or meat thawing so I would know that when I got home I would have something nutritious to eat. I recognized I was overwhelmed when I was not prepared. So I tried to be prepared ahead of time.

I wrote out my stop-start. I will stop going to drive-through and fast food and I will start planning meals and destressing through music and quiet contemplation. I put a firm boundary around the bad habit I wanted to stop. I made specific decisions about what I would start in its place.

The key is to do specific, measurable, attainable, realistic and timely stop-starts. It must be something doable. Don't try to do everything at once. We fail when we try to do that. And though failure can be a great teacher if we stop to think why we've failed, it is also many times the place we stop trying. 

Now it's your turn. What's a stop-start you could implement today? Write it out. Share it with a friend. Share it with me and this community. Hold yourself accountable. Learn the power success in small steps brings.

I'd love to hear how this worked for you. Comment below and tell me how you are using stop-start to stop that!

Teresa Shields Parker is an author, transformation coach and speaker. Her books include Sweet Grace: How I Lost 250 Pounds and Sweet Change: True Stories of Transformation. Sweet Change talks more about the power of God to help us transform into the people we want to be. Order print or kindle from Amazon or PDF from HERE. For more information on transforming your life with Teresa as your coach, find out more about Sweet Change Weight Loss Group by clicking here HERE.

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