To Change Your Behavior, Change Your Environment

Serious and debilitating addictions, such as to a physical substance or gambling, should be treated in a therapy setting, not via phone-based coaching. Nonetheless, certain concepts from addictions treatment apply to a broad range of undesired behaviors.

One concept is recognizing the effects of your environment, and proactively generating strategies for countering and replacing those effects.

In my graduate work with substance addiction therapy, we often talked about behavioral “triggers.” These are familiar people, places, or things that increase the likelihood of a relapse.

For someone seeking to eliminate or reduce an unwanted behavior, it helps to recognize these environmental influences, avoid them when possible, and have coping strategies in place for cases where one encounters them.

For example, suppose that when Charles used to shoot up heroin, his ex-girlfriend Shelly was usually present, and they most often got high on a secluded bench in Central Park at night. Over time, Charles came to associate Shelly and Central Park with all the thoughts, feelings, and behaviors related to his substance use.

Today, whenever Charles bumps into Shelly or walks by that familiar section of Central Park, his breathing quickens and his heart begins to race as he recalls the initial pleasure of his former habit.

However, Charles has learned to recognize his triggers and has generated a few strategies for doing things differently:

  • He avoids shopping on the days when he knows Shelly usually does her shopping at the neighborhood grocery store.
  • He avoids walking near Central Park alone at night.
  • He recalls the negatives associated with his former habit, and reminds himself of the current positives and future goals that would not be possible if he returned.
  • He also treats himself to a small reward for each week he remains sober, depositing $20 into his savings for the Bahamas trip he’s always dreamed of taking.

These habits help to keep Charles on track toward his desired future, and away from the track back to his undesired past.

Now let’s shift to someone with a different issue that falls more within the coaching arena. Shayla, a work-from-home internet professional, faces her own set of undesired behaviors. While not as serious as a heroin addiction, they’re still very costly in terms of time and money.

Shayla operates an internet advertising business, where she gets paid for the number of ads she sells each day. The amount of money she makes increases as she spends more time contacting potential clients. However, during the business day several of her friends and co-workers email her various “time wasting” messages–links to websites with cute stories and pictures, games, and so on.

Every time she gets such a message, Shayla spends between 30 and 60 minutes distracted from work. One site leads to another, she finds something cute to email back to her friends, and the cycle continues.

Shayla now spends more than half her workday on non-work emailing and web surfing, and her daily income has decreased by half. This doesn’t even include full weekends spent on Facebook and Twitter. In fact, her 7-year-old has learned to Twitter her reminders that it’s time to make dinner!

Fortunately, Shayla has realized she needs to change her behaviors to attain the life she wants, has identified some of the environmental influences, and has put some strategies in place.

  • Looking at places, Shayla realized she is more likely to engage in non-productive behavior whenever she is working at the coffee shop. Apparently the relaxing environment makes it difficult for her to do work. Thus, she has committed to working from her home office at least 4 days per week, with no more than half a day per week spent in the coffee shop.
  • Looking at people, Shayla noted that two of her friends in particular, Jenny and Benny, have been sending her the vast majority of distracting email. Thus, she will politely ask them to send any non-urgent messages only to her separate non-work “personal” account, and let them know she will be unable to check it during the workday.
  • As for things, Shayla noted that she has many software applications that lead to distractions and wasting time, such as instant messaging services, installed on her laptop. Her desktop computer doesn’t have any such software. Thus, she has decided to work only from the desktop computer while at home.
  • Shayla has also generated a desired alternate behavior to replace the unwanted behavior. Whenever she needs a break during the day and feels the urge to check her personal email account or surf non-work-related sites, she will go for a 15-minute walk, an activity she enjoys that ties into her personal fitness goals. Now that she’s earning more money per week, she’s also rewarding herself by saving up for some fancier walking shoes.

Your homework questions (don’t worry; I won’t grade your answers!):

  • What are two or three undesired behaviors you’d like to change in your life?
  • What primary environmental triggers are associated with each? Consider people, places, and things.
  • For each environmental trigger, what initial steps can you take over the next two weeks to eliminate it or avoid it? If you can’t avoid some of them altogether, what steps can you take to help you recognize when you’re confronted with them?
  • What are some desired thoughts or behaviors you can use to replace any undesired ones?
  • What benefits or rewards will accompany your new behavior?

The characters and situations used in these illustrations are fictitious, and any resemblance to real-life individuals is purely coincidental.

Photo by Flickr user Moyan Brenn. Size and resolution adjusted. License.

Dave welcomes phone-based life, career, and transition coaching clients from around the world.

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