Changing Habits – II

We had a lot of discussion in class. Many people talked about how much difficulty they had making a habit of exercising or of avoiding certain eating habits. We came up with some points to help with these.

Some principles involved in changing a habit are:

  1. The habit reduces discontent and that is what reinforces the behavior. The greater the reduction in discontent and the faster the reduction the greater the reinforcement.
  2. Negative emotions increase discontent and so we need to find ways of dealing with them that do not involve the habit we want to change.
  3. Pressure tends to increase discontent, so if the habit causes an increase in pressure then the discontent will come back quickly. We need to make sure that we find new habits that decrease pressure in the long run.
  4. Sympathetic arousal also tends to increase discontent. So when we are feeling tense, stressed or in pain we may be more likely to engage in the habit. We need to work on healthier ways to deal with those.
  5. We need to practice experiencing discontent without having our body respond with tension or strain. We develop discontent tolerance.

Reducing a Habit –  Reduce Eating Cookies (or other comfort food)

Cookies reduce discontent quickly. We feel more content eating the cookie than not eating it. That reinforces the habit of eating cookies.

Cookies (and other sweet foods) also reduce tension or strain in our body directly and that reduction in tension feels pleasant and that reduces discontent.

However, if we are trying to avoid eating cookies, then when we eat cookies we feel guilty. This increases discontent. We also can feel tense about having eaten the cookies which makes our discontent worse. We feel more pressure to deal with having eaten cookies which makes our discontent even worse. With our discontent so high we feel an intense urge to reduce it … by eating a cookie.

Processes that will reduce the number of cookies we eat:

  1. Noticing our level of tension before we want a cookie and use other methods to reduce that. For example, if we are starting to get hungry then having something to eat that is healthy instead of waiting till we feel ravenous. Or, if we are feeling tense inside we may go for a walk, practice relaxation, or stretch to relieve that. If we are upset, nervous, frustrated or sad then we need to find ways to deal with those emotions that do not involve eating a cookie.
  2. Noticing the demands on us and addressing those directly.
  3. Practicing experiencing the desire for a cookie and staying calm while we experience it. Essentially we practice being tolerant of our discontent. Discontent becomes just discontent.

Practicing discontent tolerance – extended session ~10 minutes:

  1. Place your attention on something calming that will act as an anchor. A soothing breathing pattern is helpful for this. I will call this the “R” state for Relaxed. Maintain this for 5-10 breaths.
  2. Shift your attention to a cookie and the feeling of wanting a cookie. Do not try to stay calm or pay attention to your breath. Just feel the want and let your body respond to that. I will call this the “S” state for diScontent. Hold this for 20-30 seconds.
  3. Shift your attention back to the soothing breathing pattern or what you were using to feel calm, i.e. go back to the “R” state. Hold this for about a minute, 5-10 breaths.
  4. Shift your attention back to the “S” state, feeling yourself want a cookie. Hold for a 20-30 seconds.
  5. Shift back to “R” hold for about a minute.
  6. Continue shifting back and forth till you notice that you can want a cookie without feeling much happen in your body. The want is just a want and you are ok wanting without having.
  7. End with your attention in the “R” state  and reflect on your experience.

This “RSRSRSR” techniques is a bit like doing lifting weights with your neuroendocrine system. You develop more discontent tolerance as you practice. A few points:

  1. Always begin and end with R
  2. Do the initial practice sessions when you are not particularly wanting the cookie.

Practicing discontent tolerance – brief session ~ 3 seconds

  1. Remember wanting or imagine wanting a cookie
  2. Exhale calmly and think “No”
  3. That’s it, but do it a lot of times per day

If you practice the discontent tolerance then you should find yourself eating fewer cookies within a week. Then finding other ways to deal with pressure and tension will augment that.

Increasing a Habit – Increasing Exercise

While exercise is healthy, until it becomes a habit the act of starting to exercise increases discontent. When we decide not to exercise that reduces the discontent and so we develop the habit of avoiding exercise.

Exercise will increase the physical demands on us and also increase the demands on our time. That pushes pressure up. And the increased pressure will increase discontent.

Also in order to exercise we need to activate our sympathetic nervous system, especially if we are already tired or in pain, and that will tend to increase discontent.

If the activity itself is uncomfortable, or we think we have to make it so, then that will increase discontent even more.

The more pressure, tension and discontent we have as we get ready to exercise  the greater the reduction in discontent when we decide to skip it. Remember, the greater the reduction in discontent the greater the reinforcement of the habit. So this reinforces our habit of avoiding exercise.

If we can reduce the discontent associated with exercise then we will be able to exercise more easily.

Processes to change the habit of avoiding exercise:

  1. Reduce the pressure that goes with exercise as much as possible. Set aside plenty of time. Set lower goals at first. Have the things you need to go exercise ready in advance. Explore ways of getting work done while exercising.
  2. Reduce discontent associated with exercise. Find ways to enjoy moving rather than “exercising”. Find people to share the activity with. Add enjoyable activities to the physical activity, such as reading or listening to music. Stop criticizing your performance.
  3. Reduce the sympathetic activation that is needed to get moving. Start slowly and warm up gradually. Reduce the intensity if your body is sore or fatigued.


We are most effective at changing unhelpful habits when we work on reducing the discontent which drives the unhelpful habit, and by also reducing the associated pressure and sympathetic arousal that feed into that discontent. By discovering these interactions and finding ways to shift them we are much more effective then if we try to change with sheer willpower. Willpower is helpful, but we need to develop skill in using it effectively and creatively. These examples may give you some ideas on how to apply these principles to other habits.

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