Friday, August 03, 2012

A tip to get rid of bad habits

GW Catholics are familiar with Fr. Tom Morrow.  He has spoken at the Newman Center several times and his writings on living faith and virtue have been helping GW Catholics for three years.  Among his many regularly published works is the “Catholic Family Quarterly”.  In the most recent issue of CFQ, Fr. Morrow addresses an issue we all need help with: overcoming bad habits.  As usual, his advice is well-researched (the sources are cited at the bottom of today’s post), based on real examples, and extremely helpful.  In particular, I ask you all to pay attention to the practice of putting dollar bills in a coffee mug.  I suggested this idea to two people who have temper tantrums; they tried it, and it has curtailed much of their anger.     It works!

Invert the Economy

Inverting the economy means offering yourself incentives to make the changes you want. An example the authors use is that of behavior that leads you closer to divorce. If every time you behaved a certain way–in our case got unreasonably angry–you lost $1,000, you might be much more motivated to change. (In fact, divorce reduces a person's net worth by 77%).2

What the authors of Change Anything found was that short-term incentives worked better than long-term. One young man had any number of long-term incentives provided by his boss for taking special classes to improve his computer skills, but he needed more. So, he provided himself smaller incentives each week he attended class and did the homework: he would take his girlfriend out to one of his favorite restaurants. That's what put him over the top.3

Authors Patterson and co. point out it is known among behavioral economists that we are more motivated to avoid losing something, than we are to gain something else. One man needing more motivation to go to the gym regularly hired a fitness coach to work with him. Missing a day at the gym would not have bothered him much, but wasting the money he was paying for the fitness coach would have bothered him a good deal and that kept him coming to the gym.4

They investigated a movie actress who was given a large monetary incentive for each pound she lost. Once she reached her goal what happened? She went back to her old weight. The point they draw from this is that we should us e incentives, but not large ones. A large incentive can become the main incentive for change and once it is gone, so is the good behavior. So, they recommend small, short-term incentives, rather than large long-term ones.5

I tried this myself recently. I wanted to get rid of a bad habit, so I put ten one dollar bills in a coffee mug. Each day I avoided the bad habit, I took a dollar out. Each time I failed I put two dollars in. If the amount in the jar increased to twenty dollars, I would give ten to the poor. Within 4 days my habit was almost completely wiped out! So what's a dollar to me or to you? Not very much. Nonetheless, when I knew the money was there and the consequences, it gave me sufficient motivation to overcome a habit I had not been able to beat. My interest in winning the "game" helped keep me aware of the goal.

 …So, if your problem is anger, you might try the same sort of thing. Perhaps put twenty dollars in a cup, and take out one dollar each day you don't lose your cool, and put in five each time you get angry. If the total goes to thirty, or forty, give al l but twenty to the poor. The psychological benefit of this little trick is amazing.

2  J. L. Zagorsky, "Marriage and Divorce's Impact on Wealth," Journal

of Sociology, 41 no. 4 (2005) pp. 406-424, as found in Change

Anything, p. 102.

3  Kerry Patterson, et. al., Change Anything, pp. 103, 104.

4  Change Anything, p. 106.

5  Change Anything, pp. 107, 108

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