Morgan loved two things. Eating and his record collection. When he brought his weight problem to a behavior specialist, the therapist helped Morgan play one love against the other.
With the therapist's help, Morgan (not his real name) came up with a contract. He gave the doctor 50 of his records and set up a weight loss schedule. Every week he checked into the office and picked out two records. If he met his weight-loss goal he got two records back. If he exceeded the desired weight the therapist sent two records to charity.
Morgan lost 35 pounds in six months.
Contracts like this are useful tools in helping people break bad habits, according to Dr. Michael Cataldo, a specialist on habits and director of the behavior medicine program at Johns Hopkins University and director of behavior psychology at the John F. Kennedy Institute, both in Baltimore.
In addition to conquering compulsive eating, habit control techniques can help eliminate a wide variety of problems-from nail biting to nagging, from headaches to poor parenting.
"We work with just about everything people do that they want to change," says Cataldo,32. "Behaviorists tend to look at habits as behaviors with reinforcements. We try to look at why the habit is occurring."
One habit may be controlled by a variety of reinforcements, he says. Smoking, for example, may be reinforced by physiological changes. A nail biter might feel the activity reduces anxiety and gives him or her something to do while waiting.
'The way you respond to something in your environment can get to be a habit," adds Cataldo, citing workers who get headaches or a neck twitch whenever things get tough at the office.
"We have to look at getting people to change the way they feel about work. Changing the response to stress may help eliminate the habit. . .relaxation periods every day can be helpful."
Six weeks is a reasonable time period for someone who wants to kick a habit, he says. However, "The more variables that are controlling the maintenance of the habit, the greater likelihood that it may take longer to break."
"The ideal way to effect a behavior change is by choice," says Cataldo.
Cataldo lists three basic components to most habit-breaking therapy:
Be aware of the behavior.
"Someone who wants to do public speaking may not be aware they talk with their hands," he says. "They might be able to stop in half an hour if you mention each time they do it."
If you don't notice you're pulling your moustache or grinding your teeth, ask someone to point out each time you do.
"It's important to have some measure of how often the behavior occurs before you do anything about it. That way you have something to compare with later on."
Carry an index card and make a note each time your habit occurs. You might want to write down the time, where you are and what has just happened, or is about to happen to you. If it's impossible to write down every instance, make a mental note and then each hour mark down the number of times.
"Most people are their own best therapists, but need help in recognizing occurrences," says Cataldo, adding that roughly 20 percent of the people he sees break their habit after recording the date. "They simply have feedback sufficient to stop."
Some parents, for example, who reacted only to their child's bad behavior learned to notice and praise good behavior after becoming aware of their responses and recording incidents.
Implement reward and punishment therapy.
"One of the most important reinforcers (rewards) is social control recognition from peers if you do well. Enlist other people to help you," says Cataldo. Or form a group with others who have the same habit and pat each other on the back.
An adult may choose to deny him or herself something as punishment, as in Morgan's record contract.
These habit-control principles also can be used to start good habits, notes Cataldo, who, with a half-dozen coworkers, decided to exercise more. "There's no sense being an expert in behavior change unless you use it," he admits. "Most of life is spent noting when you feel bad, rather than noting when you feel good."
Cataldo also is recording how much leave he takes in an effort to stop working so much. "You get on a track of meeting professional goals," he says. "For example, one of the things some people don't do is take vacations.
"There should be two kinds-a long vacation of about two weeks and short weekends. From a health standpoint and to reduct stress these are very critical. Go over your last year on your calendar. If you didn't take a vacation you may have a problem, which will catch up with you. And if you did go away, did you think about work constantly?"
Cataldo says he's made some progress in combating his tendency to overwork. Although some weeks he works 60 to 70 hours, "Other times I've learned to say no."