Lesson #1: Breaking a Bad Behavioral Chain


What is a Behavioral Chain?

A Behavioral Chain is a series of actions that lead up to an end result. It can be a series of actions that you have performed many times before, so it can become a little mindless, but if you pay attention, you can break it down into the steps that it takes to get you to the end result.

For example, if you were to eat a whole bag of cookies, it doesn’t “just happen”.  There are a series of actions, a Behavioral Chain, that end in that result, and there is an opportunity for a decision to be made at each action.  Think of them as links in the chain, one leads to the next, but the chain can be broken at any link. 

This is how eating a whole bag of cookies happened to Mary:

  1. Mary clipped a coupon for her favorite cookies.
  2. Mary looked through her coupons as she was in the grocery store and decided to use the cookie coupon.
  3. Mary bought the cookies and took them home
  4. Mary put the cookies in the pantry.
  5. The next day, she decided to watch the “Law & Order” marathon on TV.
  6. Sitting on the couch, she realized that she’d like to be munching on something.
  7. Mary went to the pantry and saw the cookies.
  8. She brought the whole bag to the couch and ate the whole thing while watching TV.

It feels like it “just happens” because you have done these same actions so many times before that they feel normal and are easy.  In this example, Mary already knew where to find the cookie coupons, and where the cookies were in the grocery store.

The purpose of looking at each individual step is that you can see where the opportunities are to break the Behavioral Chain. In the example of Mary and her cookies, her chain could have been broken at any of the steps.  Different decisions and actions can be made at any of the eight steps. 

This is how eating a bag of cookies does NOT happen:

  1. Mary decides to not clip coupons for foods that are not healthy.
  2. She makes a shopping list for the grocery store and only buy things on the list.
  3. Mary doesn’t buy the cookies, or buys them but then realizes what she’s done and drops them off at a food bank instead of taking them home.
  4. She hides the cookies in her pantry, or gives them to a neighbor, or takes them to work
  5. Mary realizes that taking a long walk would be better than sitting in front of the TV all day
  6. When she feels like munching, instead she has a big glass of water and spends a few minutes figuring out why she wants to munch.
  7. Mary doesn’t see the cookies because she hid them, so she grabs a healthy snack.
  8. She takes one cookie out of the bag, puts it on a small blue plate, puts the bag away, sits down in the brightly lit kitchen and eats the cookie slowly and enjoys each bite.

A Behavioral Chain applies to almost any unwanted action:

Maybe when you’re bored or upset you go shopping and spend too much money, resulting in debt that causes you stress, which causes more shopping … (Similar to eating “comfort” foods, for some people shopping makes them feel good while they are doing it and for a short time afterwards, but later they regret spending the money.) A similar Behavioral Chain could be made for the unwanted action of shopping. And the buying behavior could be stopped at multiple places along the behavioral chain.

The first step in tracing out any Behavioral Chain starts with being Mindful!

Keep in mind that wanted actions also go through a Behavioral Chain.

Spending the day hiking doesn’t “just happen” either. If hiking is not something that you do on a regular basis, the actions at each step will take a little more energy and not feel as comfortable, because you are not used to taking these actions.  But, remember, the more often you do an action, the more normal it feels over time.

Remember, you can’t fake a habit.  You must actually do an action repeatedly to create strong neural pathways for that action.  But you can start creating a healthy Behavioral Chain today!

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