• Like most women, I've got a few less-than-healthy habits, which is why I was glad to learn that there are some novel techniques designed to undo them. I tested out three for a week to see if I could get my ugly urges under control. See how I fared, then try them yourself.

  • Addicted to the tube

    Newton Daly  /  Getty Images file
    Do you use the TV as background noise? Break the habit by focusing on something you'd rather do.

    I grew up in a TV-permissive household, and, 30 years later, I can't help turning on the thing when I spy the remote. As a result, the television is almost always blaring in my home, dominating my attention and time in a way that depresses me. Plus, the drone of the set makes my husband nuts.

    The quit tip: Consider what you're sacrificing. My impulse to stare at the screen feels as natural to me as breathing, as many habits do. Although this type of reflexive action can be crucial when you need to make a lightning-fast judgment call (friend or foe?), it can backfire when it leads to a less beneficial choice (my watching The Real Housewives of New Jersey). It's essentially a default behavior, a rut I've fallen into that has persisted because it takes too much energy to change, explains Wray Herbert, author of On Second Thought. To stop, he suggests that I consciously think about what valuable resource the behavior is costing me. "We're naturally inclined to value what's scarce," he says. That's easy—with two young sons in the mix, it's my free time.

    Did it work? Like a charm! Whenever I had an urge to channel-surf, I pondered whether random flipping was truly how I wanted to spend my spare minutes. After three days, I was ticked off at myself for giving up the chance to do something I loved (lose myself in a good book) for something I didn't care about (watching a show for the fifth time). Midway through the week, after zoning in front of Real Housewives, I powered off and picked up a novel I'd long been meaning to finish. A month later, I've cut my TV time by a quarter.

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  • Saying yes when you mean no

    I'm not talking about sex. I have a long-standing habit of agreeing to things when I shouldn't—crazy deadlines, favors that wildly disrupt my schedule—then freaking out when mayhem inevitably ensues.

    The quit tip: Become more aware. For me, saying yes is the path of least resistance—usually, I'm nodding before someone has even finished an inconvenient request. So I signed up for a week of emails from, a site that uses cognitive-behavioral techniques to change semiautomatic habits. Specifically, you get a barrage of cheerleading or instructional texts and messages designed to interrupt your impulse. The hope is that once you become more tuned in to your typical behavior, you can change the way you respond.

    Did it work? Partly. A peppering of four or five missives every day for a week (the program is normally 42 days; I did a modified version) made me much more aware of my tendency to sabotage myself. I got an especially relevant email on a day when I'd agreed to take my sons to visit my parents 90 minutes away, stop at Costco to do the family shopping and drive home in time to make it to a book group (for which I hadn't finished the book). "Eliminate the word should from your vocabulary," the message instructed. "Replace it with would like to." I wish I'd read it a day earlier, when I could have said, "I'd like to…but I can't," to one or more of the above activities. Maybe next time!

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  • Starbucks's best customer

    Amy Sancetta  /  AP file
    Can you walk past a Starbucks without going in and buying a drink?

    Like millions before me, I've spent the equivalent of a mortgage payment at Starbucks. Whenever I pass one, which, in New York City, is about every three blocks, I drift inside as if on a conveyor belt. Each morning, when I leave my apartment with my boys in tow, I drop by the one on the first floor of our building. Later, I do it again. Expense aside, I hate being a slave to this impulse.

    The quit tip:Zen out. Simple meditation exercises, such as noticing your breath, can help you get off autopilot, says Martine Batchelor, author of Let Go: A Buddhist Guide to Breaking Free of Habits. She tells me to notice what I see, hear, smell and touch as I head out on the street: "Before you leave home, be aware of your hand on the stroller," she says. She also tells me to bring something to sip, because I associate Starbucks with a drink.

    "The two main elements of meditation—concentration and inquiry—are key to getting control of your actions," Batchelor explains. "Concentration helps because every time you come back to your breath, your body, a mantra or whatever your meditation is, you dissolve the habit's power," she notes. Inquiry, she tells me, is what follows. "It's like a beam of light," she says. "Normally, you find yourself at Starbucks before you think about it. With inquiry, you notice the details of the experience, you take the time to observe when and how the habit arises, and you become a little more aware that you don't want to do it."

    Did it work? Absolutely. The first morning, I head out the door armed with an iced tea I made at home. Then I look down at my son's hair through the plastic moonroof of the stroller and feel the roughness of the foam handle. As I watch my son fidgeting with his sunglasses, I savor the sweetness of my iced tea. With all the things I'm noticing, I become aware of this stunning fact: I don't feel like going into Starbucks. I try to intuit why I'm normally drawn to the store. It's a treat, I realize. Or it was. What it has become is an expensive habit that I no longer have to indulge, especially with all the other things capturing my attention. I steer the stroller away and keep going, past four more Starbucks. I don't stop at any. It's as if a string has been cut. I'm finally free.

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