Do Something Else

by Cherry Pedrick, RN
Reprinted from, August 28, 2001 

You've heard it before; "Stop that!" That's easier said than done. You are becoming more aware of your habit – when and where you are most likely to have the urge to engage in your habit. These are the times you need to be more alert, you need to guard against your habit. But what about the urge? What do you do with that urge? What do you do with your hands when you would otherwise be biting your nails or twirling your hair? What do you do with your time when you would be surfing the net or gambling?

This leads us to a discussion of another important part of habit reversal, perhaps the central component. Therapists refer to it as a competing response. This is a behavior you will substitute for your habit. It needs to be incompatible with your habit, something you can’t do while engaging in your habit. For example, if you press your thumb and forefinger together, you can’t bite your nails, twirl your hair, or pick at your skin.

The behavior needs to be something you can do for as long as the urge to engage in your habit lasts. It also needs to be something that will be convenient, something you can do in public without being noticed. If your habit is a behavior that you often engage in while participating in other activities, your competing response will need to be something that will not interfere with these other activities. For example, people who bite their nails often do so while watching TV, reading, or working on paperwork.

Your competing response will not only help you keep from engaging in your habit; it will also help you become more aware of what you are doing – and what you are not doing. When our example guy is pressing his thumb and finger together, he will be reminded that he is not biting his nails. The idea of not biting his nails and the idea of being successful at his quest is reinforced each time he engages in his competing response. Habits are often almost automatic. We do them without thinking about what we are doing. This added awareness helps the behavior become less automatic.

List several behaviors that could be a competing response for your habit. Brainstorm, listing all the behaviors that come to mind. When you can’t think of another potential competing response, stop and examine your list. Pick out the ones that meet the criteria we set forth above. The behavior must be a behavior that:

Narrow down your list, then pick a behavior to become your competing response. Don’t worry about it being the perfect competing response. If this one doesn’t work, you can choose another behavior. You might want to have two or three possible competing responses. For example, if overeating or excessive snacking is a problem, you could let yourself choose from reading, needlework and walks outdoors.

After you’ve picked one or more competing responses, take a few moments to list the advantages and disadvantages of engaging in this behavior instead of your habit. Hopefully, the advantages will outweigh the disadvantages, just as the disadvantages of your habit outweighed the advantages. If not, you may want to choose another competing response.

So, you’ve probably been told, “Stop that!” or “Don’t do that.” That advice is much too limited. It gives no direction. Add to that advice; “Do something else.”

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