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Undoing a bad habit – lessons from the big box stores

Posted Feb 25 2013 5:00am

Sometimes trying to break a habit only makes it worse.

changing a bad habit

If you have a habit that you wish you had never started, gambling, drinking, drug use, over eating, or whatever, and want to change it, take a strategy from the big boys play book.

The major chain retailers all want you in their store. To get you in the door and then make a regular shopper out of you they have to get you out of their competitor’s store. There are right ways to do this and wrong ways.

These strategies are not about will power or won’t power . They also have little to do with your motivation. In the future we will talk more about how to motivate yourself and stay motivated. When we talk about that we will look at why it is so easy to motivate yourself to do fun things and so hard to motivate yourself to do disagreeable things. Here is how retailers motivate you. 

The ways major retailers get you to switch is a blue print for changing your behavior.  Here are some things the stores do and how you can use these techniques to end a habit.

1. Do not focus on the behavior you want to stop.

This is where most self-improvement programs go wrong. The more you try to not do something the stronger the urges to do exactly that thing. One retailer does not, if they are smart, run commercials telling you to “don’t shop at brand X.”

Commercials like that only remind you of brand x. Occasionally retailers forget and do this. The result is not more customers in their store, even if they get them out of the competitor’s store. (See the post on “ Don’t think about elephants. ”)

If you are trying to get rid of a habit like drinking, focusing on not drinking is likely to get you to find another habit to take the drinking’s place. That new habit, like gambling, may be just as undesirable as the old habit.

People in recovery find that just quitting the old habit leaves you miserable. There is a whole body of literature on “dry drunks” people who have quit the drinking but they are still miserable. So what do you do?

2. Create a competing behavior

Stores try to give you a reason to try them, just once. They use coupons, special this week only, offers and the like to create a real strong reason for you to come to them this one time.

With undesirable habits we need to create a new positive habit to replace the old one. This is one reason A.A. or church services are so helpful to recovering people. It creates a new habit to replace the old one.

3. Make sure the new habit is enjoyable.

If the store gets you in the door they should do all they can to make this new experience a positive one. Smart retailers bring in extra help for the sale even if they are selling things at cost.

They want you to get service and get it promptly if they have any chance of keeping you as a regular customer. Stores that forget this and make you wait in long lines or treat you rudely end up sending you back to the place you used to shop even if you didn’t really like it there.

If your change effort involves pain and doing without then you are likely to say why bother and head right back to what you used to do. Make this new change behavior enjoyable and the chances that this fun thing will replace the old undesired behavior.

4. Keep coming back

Stores know that if you switch your shopping pattern and visit a new place three times in a row there is a strong chance you have a new regular place to shop. This is why they use coupons that have expiration dates, offers that allow you so much off or something for free each week or month.

Make a habit of the new behavior and it is likely to persist.

This is why recovery groups will suggest 30 meetings in 30 days or even 90 meetings in 90 days. Anything you do that many times in a row will become your new default behavior. Even if you start missing meetings down the road the habit of going to a meetings instead of drinking is now firmly entrenched.

So if you really want to stop a bad habit take these simple steps. Create a new habit to replace the old one. Make it fun to do. Minimize any negative parts of the new behavior and keep doing it over and over until it is your new default behavior.

Do these steps and you can be a habit shaper just like the big boys.

Photo courtesy of Wikipedia 

For more about David Joel Miller and my work in the areas of mental health, substance abuse and Co-occurring disorders see the about the author page . For information about my other writing work beyond this blog there is also a Facebook authors page, up under David Joel Miller. Posts to the “books, trainings and classes” category will tell you about those activities. If you are in the Fresno California area, information about my private practice is at counselorfresno.com

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