You Can’t Teach an Old Dog New Tricks? Yes you can..

Without insulting serious addiction, there is good cause to believe that some addictions are not addictions, rather habits.

For years I was a saltaholic. Added salt to everything from steak to french-fries to salad was very normal for me. I mean, who doesn’t add salt to french-fries? People with high blood pressure or pre-hypertension that’s who… Yep, at the ripe age of 37 the signs hypertension began to show up. Hypertension runs in my family as I discovered so it was a matter of time that I would have to be treated for it in some fashion.

But at 37! Surely I could change what I was doing to avoid prescription meds. Thus, it was time to break bad habits.

First, how does a habit work? For every habit there is a cue, a reward, and a routine. The cue sets off a series of behaviors that ultimately looks like this. A mother makes a vow to not eat out to help the family budget. But what happens? On the way home, like most days, she drives by McDonalds. She is a bit stressed and the kids have lost their minds. Plus, it is supper time. The cue, wigged out kids. The routine? Hit the drive through, drop $30 and head home. An hour later, regrets having ate out and wrecked her budget again.

For me and salt the cue was…eating food. The routine, setting at the table, organizing my plate and grabbing the salt shaker. The reward, the flavor and using the salt shaker.

See the "How to change a habit" flow chart

How do we break these habits? Obviously some habits are easier to break than others. In the case of the stressed out mother, she could simply take a different route home to avoid the site of the golden arches or other fast food joints. In addition, she could keep bags of crackers in the car and pass them around to the kids. The kids may still act goofy but the crackers may quiet them down a little on the way home.

In my case the habit was a bit harder to break. No matter where I go I gotta eat and salt is everywhere. I figured out my triggers, routine and reward. Eating and using copious amounts of salt as soon as I sat down. The reward was the taste and physical act of adding the salt. To break this habit loop I did a couple things. 1, quit putting a salt shaker in on the table or moving one away if it was within easy reach when dining out. 2, I bought Mrs. Dash, not the same thing I know but it does add flavor to food and it gave the satisfaction (aka reward) of shaking something on my food.

Over time my craving for salt disappeared. Plus I quit using Mrs. Dash as that reward was no longer a neccessary. As it turned out, staying off high blood pressure meds became the reward and that keeps me off salt to this day. Side note, my pallet is very sensitive to salt now. There are some foods I avoid all together now due to being too salty.

From these examples we can see that in fact we can teach old dogs new tricks. Even when we are the old dog.

In the next entry in our series we will explore how to instill new habits. Often we know what we need to do but do not have the tools to move forward. For another even more succinct version to learn how to break habits, check out Charles Duhigg’s video where he explains how he broke a cookie habit and lost 12 pounds. See it here, watch the video now

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