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Habits and Replacement Behaviors for Interrupting Triggers

Published 3/22/2019

What is the one thing you do automatically that you wish you could change? In today's episode, we're talking about different ways we can intervene in our bad behaviors and modify them in a healthy way.

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Transcript (Generated by OpenAI Whisper)
What is the one thing that you do automatically that you wish you would stop doing? This is kind of a hard question to answer because sometimes it's hard to know what we do automatically. But try to think of a bad habit, something that you wish you could change about your behavior. For example, for me, I have a bad habit of eating sweets late at night. Now when I was growing up, we kind of laughed this off in our family as having a sweet tooth. But this has become a habit and it's something that I'd like to change. Now, I want you to imagine what yours is. Take a moment, write it down, or have it in your head and use it as you're thinking through this episode today. And we're going to talk about some ways that we can intervene in our behaviors in today's episode. My name is Jonathan Cutrell. You're listening to Developer Tea. This show exists to help driven developers like you find clarity, perspective, and purpose in your careers. We talk about behavior on the show all the time. It happens to be a really core to our success as developers, understanding our own behaviors, understanding others, behaviors, and specifically how we can modify our own behaviors and how we can act better around the behaviors of other people, understanding them so we can respond in more valuable ways. Breaking habits is a hard thing to do. I want to share a few tips with you from science and also my own experience. This is coming from a bunch of books that I've read, but also a lot of journal articles and experiences that I've had, the things that I've done that have worked for me in breaking bad habits. Now, it's not just about breaking bad habits. If you try to say you want to stop doing something, then what happens next? When the occasion arises for me to eat sugar late at night, I have to not do that. But it's really difficult to put the focus on the thing that you're not doing because here's the reality. When you try to break a habit by saying you're not going to do something, that you're not going to participate in some activity, whenever that occasion arises, you end up fixating on the not doing. Now, this is very similar in terms of what your brain is processing to the actual doing. Your brain is thinking about eating that piece of cake, right? Your brain is still thinking about the same action. You're just choosing to not participate in it. Your brain doesn't really care about the not part. It imagines eating the piece of cake, whether you're going to or whether you're not going to. So, how can we kind of avoid this, this way of processing? Well, we need to find replacement behaviors. Having replacement behaviors is choosing to do something different, right? Choosing to, instead of eating that piece of cake, in my case, I'm going to choose to drink a glass of water. Assuming that I don't do this 100 times a day, this is essentially a benign replacement. It's something that is probably good for me, and at the very least, it's not bad for me. What this does is it gives me a redirection, a new way of responding to that trigger. The trigger behavior that I have is I'm sitting on the couch with my wife watching a TV show or something. And in that moment, because of this habit, I develop some kind of craving. It's not something that my body needs in that moment. So when I develop this craving, I can respond to that trigger. I can respond to it now with a new behavior. Now, here's the tricky part. We don't always know where these triggers start. For me, I've kind of nailed it down to a time of day and a place. If I'm on my couch at night, then that's the occasion. That's the place, the venue where this behavior tends to happen. But it's not always that simple. Let's take something from programming. Let's say that you want to change the behavior of not writing tests, of pushing your code, emerging a PR, before you have tests written. Now, how can we change this behavior? What are some things we can do? Well, there's a lot of things that we can do to address this. For example, you may have some restrictive continuous integration that you put in place. This can help remind you that, hey, you know what? You actually do need to have tests on this before you can merge it. It's more restrictive than it is behavioral. The hope is that eventually, because you know that the CI will restrict you anyway, to make the process a little bit more efficient, you start. You start off right and you go ahead and write the test before you try to merge. Another way that you can think about this is, what is the origin behavior? What is the earliest behavior that I can trace back to my bad behavior? You may find, like many others have found, that even starting your code without a test could be your origin behavior. So you may need to try test-driven development, that is starting with the test first. Alternatively, when you do this kind of self-evaluation, you may kind of come to the conclusion that it has nothing to do with your motivation to write the test, or even with writing the test first, that instead this happens whenever you feel rushed. And you feeling rushed is maybe the root cause. And so you need to find a way to not feel rushed. I want you to consider the fact that not every intervention is going to necessarily fix the behavior right out of the gate. For example, I may get that glass of water instead of that piece of cake, but then five minutes later, still get that piece of cake, right? You may start with a test, but then you may change your feature code and ignore the fact that the test is failing whenever you push your code. The hope here is to find interventions that change your automatic behavior. Your automatic behavior being the thing that you do without really thinking about it, the thing that you default to. You want to interrupt that automatic behavior with some kind of trigger response, changing that trigger response, rewiring the way that your brain processes that stimulus. That's how you affect behavior change. It doesn't start with trying to change all of your behaviors in one big, you know, fell swoop, right? That's probably not going to work. Instead, find small replacement behaviors and interject them as early as you can. Find as close to the root behavior as possible and shift that root behavior to a new behavior. Some therapists even suggest that when you experience that root behavior, you wear a rubber band. And whenever that root behavior, that craving, for example, whenever you feel it, snap yourself with the rubber band. Of course, you're in control of this. So it shouldn't be so hard as to injure yourself. But instead, to give your brain some feedback, some physical feedback. And the idea is that if you don't start taking note of those triggers of that initial root behavior, then it's going to be very hard to replace that behavior. Now, I'm not saying that you go and put on a rubber band and snap yourself every time you forget to write a test. But I am saying that finding moments to interrupt that automatic behavior, that is how behavior change occurs. Thank you so much for listening to today's episode of Developer Tea. I'd love to hear your stories of behavior change as well as any other story that you have about how Developer Teahas affected you. I'd love to hear that. You can either leave those stories in reviews on iTunes. It's a great way to help other developers find and then decide to listen to Developer Teaor you can email me Developer Tea at gmail.com. Thank you so much for listening and until next time, enjoy your tea.