When a fashionista goes cold turkey: Lessons in breaking habits

Every now and again I like to swing the behavioural techniques pendulum away from business and towards personal effectiveness. More specifically, how taking control of our habits can make us more productive, healthier and happier.

Here’s a case in point. A good friend of mine has sworn off buying any new clothes, handbags or shoes for the next 12 months. No mean feat for someone who works in, and loves, fashion.

So with her commitment in mind I thought I’d drill into how to break a habit particularly when it’s something you enjoy.

Breaking a habit

As I have written in my book, The How of Habits, the anatomy of a habit breaks down into three elements: when, what and why.

“When” is the trigger or cue that reminds you to undertake the behaviour. A trigger could be something that happens to you (alarm goes off, sun rises, phone rings) or something you do (wake up, shower, feed the dog).

“What” is the routine, or steps you undertake (for example, after I eat breakfast I go to the bathroom and brush my teeth for two minutes using an electric toothbrush).

“Why” is the payoff — your reward. This could be financial (save or gain financial advantage), physiological (reduce decay or strengthen your health) or emotional (feel better).

Removing the trigger

When it comes to breaking a habit, the easiest thing to do is remove the trigger. That means either stopping the trigger from occurring (turning off an alarm) or removing yourself from the trigger (not driving past the fast food outlets if that’s what prompts you to eat unhealthily).

For a shopping habit, the question is what is triggering the behaviour? It might be a magazine (stop buying them), email from a retailer (unsubscribe) or a deeper emotional tension (requiring deeper techniques like mindfulness).

Interrupting the routine

If the trigger cannot be suppressed, then we can break a habit by interrupting the routine you follow. The aim is to make what you do more difficult by either changing the environment (using smaller bowls so servings are reduced) or swapping one routine for another (drinking sparkling water instead of wine).

For shopping, changing your environment might mean not carrying credits cards, not visiting shopping centres (even for essentials like groceries), or walking rather than driving so you are less inclined to lug big bags home. For me, if I wear high heels it reduces the time I want to spend shopping.

Swapping your routine will depend on what other things you enjoy but may not have time for. It might mean going to the gym, watching a film or reading a book rather than shopping.

Importantly, to minimise your risk of reverting, you need to replace the old behaviour with something else because otherwise you will feel at a loose end, and the new routine has to give you the same emotional payoff as shopping so you don’t crave the ‘buzz’.

Rewiring the reward

The reward is the hardest element of a habit to change because what we often think is the reward is not. For instance, I might think a drink of wine relaxes me after a hard day’s work, when it could instead be the ritual of drinking something special at a particular time of day that transitions me from work to personal time. The reward isn’t the alcohol, it’s having something just for me.

The reward someone receives from buying new things is multi-faceted. It might be feeling productive, progressive, anticipating social approval, expressing individuality, exercising control or a myriad of other emotions.

To rewire the reward means de-coupling the emotional payoff from the behaviour in one of two ways. You can either replace the activity of shopping with something that gives you the same reward (a.k.a. swap the routine) or poison the connection between shopping and the payoff (for example, by buying things you hate, which is not a great use of resources!)

Three months in and my friend is doing supremely well, and has enjoyed the creativity that has come from refashioning her existing wardrobe. What’s your habit that you would like to disrupt?

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