Distraction is often at the core of behavioral inflexibility. “Noticing and naming your destructive behaviors allows you to step outside of yourself and look at a situation objectively rather than let powerful emotions makes decisions for you,” Zimmerman notes.
The second you find yourself overeating, picking at your skin, or engaging in negative self-talk, notice the behavior and why you're doing it. (For Zimmerman, it’s often eating a few too many cookies in an attempt to decompress after work.)
That’s step one: recognition. “Awareness does not solve all problems, but no problem is ever solved without awareness,” adds Noam Shpancer, Ph.D., professor of psychology at Otterbein University in Westerville, Ohio.
Chances are, you're stressed or unfocused when you're taking part in a bad habit. Those mental states can make you crave a hit of dopamine.
The intensity at which the brain processes the anticipation of reward—when you're waiting for a text or about to taste something sweet, for example—wears down your natural ability to produce the neurotransmitter, says Zimmerman. That means over time, you’ll need more likes, more sugar, more anything to get the same level of satisfaction.
Deep breathing transports you to a relaxed, content state without the need of external stimulants.
After noticing and naming, stop what you’re doing and close your eyes, Zimmerman says. For at least four full breaths, make each exhale twice as long as each inhale. When you open your eyes, you'll feel more in control.
You've already recognized your trigger, the behavior that follows, and that deep breathing can put a stop to it in the short term.
After mastering those steps, Zimmerman suggests you schedule 10-minute fasts when that trigger is most likely to surface. You might put your phone in the bottom of your bag during your commute or go for a walk when you get home from work so you won't overindulge.
Once 10 minutes starts to feel easy, lengthen your fast to a full day, one week, even a month if it's something you can live without, like dessert or Instagram. "Continue practicing deep breathing to support the process," Zimmerman says.
After you've proved you can live without that thing for extended periods, reintroduce it mindfully. You might choose to enjoy an indulgent dessert every Friday or spend five minutes a day catching up on your friends' social updates.
While you can do anything other than the offending activity during your dopamine fasts, they'll be even more effective if you take the opportunity to adjust your language.
"You might find that you speak to yourself in harsh, rigid terms," says Shpancer. Maybe you tell yourself time always goes by faster when you're looking at your phone rather than reflecting on the day, or that the only way to relax after work is by overindulging.
"In these cases, it's useful to first ask, 'says who?'," he notes, then determine whether you actually want to live by that rigidity given that both you and the world are dynamic and ever-changing.
Even if you decide that the self-imposed rule is in line with your values, express it in more humane, flexible terms, Shpancer says. Instead of using words like always or only, take a softer stance. "I always give in to cravings, so there's no use in fighting them" could be replaced with "I know how to manage cravings, but the world won't end if I give in sometimes."
The behavioral flexibility you build through these practices will translate into willpower and self-control so you can meet, and exceed, more life goals.