When Alertness Really Counts

by Cherry Pedrick, RN
Reprinted from Suite101.com, August 20, 2001, Revised

Are you keeping track of your habit? I asked you to write down every time you engage in your. What are you doing when your habit shows up? What are you thinking? How are you feeling? I also asked you to list the advantages and disadvantages of keeping your habit and the advantages of changing.

Back in the 1970s, a couple researchers, Nathan Azrin, Ph.D. and Gregory Nunn, Ph.D. developed a method for breaking bad habits called habit reversal. They wrote a book that is now out of print, Habit Control in a Day. Since then, the method they described has been researched and found to be effective in helping people with tics, nervous habits, stuttering, and many other types of unwanted behaviors.

The first part of habit reversal is awareness training. This is what you are doing when you keep a record of your habit – becoming aware of when you engage in your habit. What you are thinking, doing, and feeling when your habit shows up? Who are you with? These are habit prone situations. Sometimes we can try to stay away from these situations or places, but often they are with us everyday. You can avoid the temptation to drink by not going to a bar, but you can’t avoid opening the refrigerator where the beer is stored, for example.

So what can you do with these times and situations when the urge to engage in your habit can be overwhelming? Be extra alert at these times. My husband works at an airbase. They have different degrees of alertness that they describe with the letters of the Greek alphabet – Alpha, Beta, Charlie, Delta, etc. This is not to say they aren’t alert at all times, only that they are more alert and take more precautions at certain times. At times, certain doors are locked and parking lots are cordoned off near the buildings.

Similarly, when you enter our National forests you will see signs posting the fire hazard. We need to be extra alert to the dangers of fire when the temperature is up and the foliage is dry. And what about when you were a kid and Mom said, “I’m warning you, this is your last chance!” Didn’t you try extra, extra hard not to do whatever it was you weren’t supposed to be doing?

As we saw in my last article, there is a much greater danger of tripping and breaking my foot when walking anywhere that my son has recently been. There might be a cordless phone in the middle of the floor. I’m extra alert, watching where I step, when I walk through his room to get his laundry or walk past his desk in our office to get to my desk.

In the same way, we need to be extra alert when our habit is likely to show up, when the urge could seem almost overwhelming. Be creative. After I started learning about habit change and assisting Dr. Claiborn with writing The Habit Change Workbook I lost about 25 pounds. I didn’t used a magic formula or a fad diet. I used exercise, a balanced diet, and the principles of habit reversal. Being extra alert when I know I'm likely to eat unhealthy foods or neglect my exercise has helped. Eating in restaurants and luncheons at people’s homes are especially tempting for me. If I eat a little something before I leave the house, it helps me resist the urge to eat too much or to eat the wrong types of foods. Arranging my environment at home has helped too. I’ve stocked my refrigerator with healthy foods and eliminated such things as cookies, chips, and candy from the grocery list.

Take a look at the records of your habit you’ve kept. How can you arrange your environment to reduce the urge to engage in your habit? What situations, places and people could you avoid while you’re working on your habit? When do you need to be extra alert?

Be sure to check out The Habit Change Workbook:
How to Break Bad Habits and Form Good Ones