Changing Habits One Step at a Time

On a recent visit my client, Nell, told me about an interview she listened to with Dr. David Bresler.  FYI,  David E. Bresler, PhD, LAc is a neuroscientist, board certified acupuncturist and health psychologist, author, and educator best known for his pioneering work with people in chronic pain.  Anyway, during the interview much of the conversation was about strategies for changing habits that are really hard to break, like smoking or addictive eating.  Call me “not surprised” to hear him talk about the best way to change behavior is to 1) set yourself up for success and 2) be rewarded for the new behavior.

He gave the example of a rat in a maze.  The rat knows the way to the reward very well as a result of many repetitions and rewards.  Let’s say one day that you decide to train the rat to take a different route.  You have a few options.  You could block the old way (more of a management solution, not really training) or you could rig it so that the rat would get a shock when ever he tried to go the usual way.  This part was interesting.  You would think that after getting shocked for turning left enough times that the rat would choose to go right.  But, that isn’t what happens.  What happens is that the rat will still try to keep to the old program because that is what he is in the habit of doing.  He’ll keep doing the old thing but instead of doing it happily he will be stressed about it.  Turns out, the very best way to get the rat to go right instead of left is to put a food reward to the right.

This reminds me of a story Leslie Desmond told about Bill Dorrance at one of her clinics I attended.  She said that he used to talk about how other fellas would say stuff like, “make the wrong thing difficult and the right thing easy”.  But, that he would say, “why not just make the right thing — OBVIOUS.”

The other thing this speaks to is the power of a well established habit.  And it is another reason why the old horsemen would say, “so they are started, so they go”.  The most important thing we do with a horse is put that good solid start on them. Those habits started early, repeated and heavily reinforced can last a lifetime and be pretty hard to ruin once installed.

When dealing with a horse who has habits that need changing, the smartest thing to do is to break it down into the smallest achievable steps and reward, reward, reward until there has been enough repetition has occurred to call it a new and better habit.  “They” say that 5,000 repetitions are needed in order install a new habit.  That means, it won’t happen tomorrow.  You just have to have some faith in the process and accept that it will take the time it takes.