by Kathie England

Better Than Before – Safeguards

In this chapter titled “A Stumble May Prevent a Fall,” Rubin explores the paradox of habits. They are surprisingly tough and also surprisingly fragile.
The subtitle, “Safeguards,” captures the essence of the strategies she offers – anticipate and minimize temptation. Rubin explains that there is “a downward pull toward bad habits that requires us to maintain an active, concrete effort to protect our good habits.” She proposes that the Strategy of Safeguards keeps one lapse from turning into a full relapse.
Rubin cites a study that estimated people spend about one-fourth of their waking time resisting some aspect of desire (examples include the urge to eat, to sleep, to grab some leisure, and to pursue some kind of sexual urge).
She says the first step in the Strategy of Safeguards is the elimination of the cues that lead to temptation. Out of sight, out of mind is one of the simplest techniques. Hide the temptation whether it’s your iPad or that bag a chips.
Another technique is to avoid the cue altogether. She shares an example her daughter used to avoid buying candy on the way home from school. When her daughter walked home from school with a certain friend, they always walked down a street that had many candy-buying opportunities. By not walking home with this friend, her daughter explained she was able to avoid the candy-buying temptation.
Rubin explains that cues lurk everywhere. Cues can be a place, a mood, a time of day, a transition, other people, or even a pattern of behavior. Smells are a particularly strong trigger (think Cinnabons in the mall or airport). By eliminating cues or triggers we can stop the temptation before it becomes overpowering.
One of the most intriguing strategies is called “If ________________ happens, then I will do _________________.” (This one is particularly interesting to me because it’s a strategy one of my clients developed on her own.)
Because we can’t eliminate all cues from our surroundings, the “if-then” strategy is especially helpful.
Decide in advance a detailed plan of action for keeping your habit in the face of an unexpected cue or trigger. By planning in advance, we avoid making a decision in the heat of the moment when our impulsivity may take over.
This strategy reminds me of the  “behavioral scripts” used by Starbucks and discussed by Charles Duhigg in The Power of Habit. Part of the training for baristas includes their creating their own behavioral scripts that detail what they will say when encountering an angry customer. They overlearn these scripts so they can use them in the heat of the moment.
One Rubin uses for herself is when she’s writing and she needs to verify some information. Rather than stop and look it up, she makes a note to herself “look up” in the text to remind her to do it later. This “if-then” example prevents her getting derailed in the never-ending “Google search” that can take her far afield.
Rubin suggests that “if-then” planning is one of the most important tools within Safeguards, because it arms us to face any high-risk situation with a carefully considered plan.” One we’ve put in the mental effort to plan, Rubin says it take much less energy to put it into operation.
What “if-then” strategy might help you?
Tomorrow I’ll share Rubin’s ideas about how the Strategy of Safeguards can help us avoid breaking good habits.