All About You: You can change harmful habits
EDITOR’S NOTE: Motivating employees to work safely is part of the safety professional’s job. But who motivates the motivator? In this monthly column, veteran safety pro and professional speaker Richard Hawk offers his entertaining brand of wisdom to inspire safety pros to perform at their best.
Have a bad habit you want to break? You can blame dopamine. It’s the molecule that coaxed you to eat that third doughnut. As a chemical driver behind wanting more, it’s also a major factor in addictions and stimulates risky behavior. Although it can cause havoc, dopamine is vital to our survival because it motivates us to pursue food, water and other life-sustaining material. Frustratingly, it’s also a formidable obstacle to overcoming negative – even harmful – behavior.
Like you, I’ve slugged it out with this potent brain stimulator many times, and with mixed results. Much research has shown that when something we do induces a feel-good dopamine reward, that “something” is more apt to grab our attention and spur desire in the future.
If you want to change a harmful habit or overcome temptation, you’ve got to reroute or replace your brain’s dopamine history. It’s not easy, but it’s doable. I’ve developed a few negative habits during the COVID-19 pandemic that I’m working on replacing with more positive ones. I eat way more snacks than I used to and, although I’ve written about avoiding this in “All About You” and discussed it in my talks and seminars, I’ve been watching much more “news” than is healthy for my mind. Perhaps you’ve picked up a few habits during the past six months or so that you’d like to change.
I’ve been successful in changing negative habits and removing barriers to success in the past. Let me share what I’ve done and what I’m doing now.
Identify and change your triggers. My excessive snacking is tied to watching the news. I’ve gotten into the habit of grabbing a large bag of salty snacks before I turn on the TV in the early evening. So, I know my nightly news binge is a trigger for my snacking, and vice versa. For the past two weeks, I’ve been watching a short burst of news in the morning while drinking coffee. This still gives me a bit of a dopamine jolt but without the extended news exposure and excessive calories. At night, I remind myself that I’ll get to watch (and enjoy) a few moments of news in the morning. You can do this with any harmful habit. Find out what triggers the behavior and then re-move the trigger as best you can.
Replace the behavior with a better one. If you leave a dopamine void, you’re setting up yourself for failure. The more we receive a reward, the more entrenched our desire for the specific reward becomes. Even something as simple (but dangerous) as taking – and getting away with – a safety-related shortcut will give us a feeling of reward. That’s why a person who’s been taking the same shortcut for years is hard-pressed to change the behavior. But if a new and different reward/feeling replaces the “old one,” perhaps by getting praise for the new behavior, there’s a much higher likelihood for positive change.
I’m replacing my evening news watching with a video series on lucid dreaming and another one about music theory. It cost me a few dollars, but I’m getting my dopamine fix more positively. If you want to stop a behavior you know isn’t helpful, find something you enjoy as a replacement.
Remind yourself about and brace for the dopamine desire. A long-held habit that rewarded you, even if the reward caused you problems, won’t go away without a fight. So, prepare for the feelings that will coax you to repeat the behavior. I still yearn to snack and watch the news at night, especially because it’s only been a couple of weeks since I’ve been avoiding it. But by preparing myself for the edgy feelings I’ll get after supper urging me to grab that bag of potato chips strengthens my resolve. Then, I’m not as likely to give in.
Most times, dopamine is a positive, feel-good natural “drug” – one that gives life much of its zest and pleasure. But sometimes, it tricks us into doing things that aren’t good for us. That’s when we need to step in and take control with a few tricks of our own.
This article represents the views of the author and should not be construed as a National Safety Council endorsement.
Richard Hawk helps safety professionals become better leaders through his keynotes, workshops, articles and books so they can create vibrant safety cultures. His popular “Mindfully Safe” keynote teaches employees how to focus better and improve their situational awareness, a key skill to preventing incidents. To contact Richard, visit makesafetyfun.com.
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