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Jan 31, 2022

Podcast 279: Dr. Leigh Harrington on Goal Setting for Habits and Addictions or Using Habits to Feel Better

Today, we are joined by a very special member of the TEAM-CBT family, psychiatrist Leigh Harrington, MD, who will teach us how to set goals that work when battling habits and addictions.

Leigh Harrington, MD, MPH, MHSA, is a psychiatrist, TEAM-CBT Therapist and Trainer.  Originally from Michigan, where she completed medical school and graduate school, she had the good fortune to meet Dr. David Burns in 2004 during her psychiatry residency at Stanford University when she joined his original group of Tuesday night students.  She specializes is helping therapists and individuals reach their goals especially in the areas of Interpersonal Exposure, Relationships, and Habits.  She lives in Davis, California with her two beloved daughters.

Leigh begins by saying that there are many parts of the TEAM-CBT model than help when battling unwanted habits and addictions. Our habits definitely result from how we think, and the stories we tell ourselves, and treatment can sometimes be more than just treatment, but a transformational experience.

She explains that

“I gained 20 pounds following my last pregnancy, so I began to set three kinds of goals:

  • Mental goals
  • Physical goals
  • Relationship goals”

Mental goals

She continues:

“I focused on reducing the many Should Statements I was battering myself with, like “I should have done this or that,” or “I should do this or that.” These kinds of statements sounded demanding and triggered feelings of guilt and frustration that actually made it harder to achieve my goals.

“So, I decided, instead, to notice my thoughts, and focus instead on appreciating things. This was just one of many approaches to rewiring my brain.

“For example, I realized I had been letting my brain run itself each morning. When I woke up my mind would start to tell me all the things I needed to (should) do that day. . . Sometimes I would wake up feeling “okay,” but I was definitely not in a state of bliss, gratitude or joy.

“Sometimes it seemed as if my mind would look to find reasons I might not be feeling top-of-the-world: ‘Well there is this issue… or this… and also this…’

“Which told me a story of my unhappiness, or simply a lack of joy. Of course, my mind was well-intentioned, trying to help me out, but it didn’t end in greater joy, but in the weight of ‘shoulds’ and reasons to feel crummy. It had become a habit--a thinking habit.

“I was struck by the idea that I didn’t have to let my mind think whatever it wanted and wondered if I could break this thinking habit. In habit work, we determine the new habit we want, check our motivation, plan solutions to any problems, and commit to the new habit.

“I thought I would keep my new habit simple, believable, and incorporate gratitude, as that can sometimes be helpful, too.

“My new habit was to catch myself while I was still in bed, as soon as I recognized I was having thoughts, and say to myself something I believed that, was non-controversial. When I caught myself thinking any shoulds or telling myself any unhappy stories, I said to myself, ‘I love my bed. I love my house. I love my lamp.’

“This might seem simple, trivial, or silly. But the point of the new habit was not to be profound and brilliant. The point was to change my thinking in the smallest of ways and to prove to myself I could create a new thinking habit.

“This simple thought habit has allowed me to start my day on a better note and has allowed me to prove to myself I can change my thinking habits.”

Physical goals

Leigh explains:

“Here’s how I lost the 20 pounds I had gained. Instead of focusing on one strategy – like, “I will only eat vegetables,” or “I will exercise 2 hours per day,” I focused on achieving the goal by any means. I used the experimental technique and went through a series of habit experiments.

“First I tried just thinking I’d like to lose the weight. I. This may seem crazy, but there have been times in my life when I’ve seemed to effortlessly loose weigh, so that seemed like an easy first go.

“As you might imagine, it didn’t work as well in my 40’s as it did in my 20’s. As long as I kept giving in to my urges to have a sugary treat in the afternoon as a pick-me-up, and refusing to be in deprivation, nothing at all happened with my weight.

“I also allowed myself to eat as much as I wanted to, just as I had when I was pregnant and nursing my daughter.

“Since that didn’t work,. I experimented with some green juice in place of sugary snacks. I felt healthier, but there was no change in my weight.

“Then I decided on a multi-pronged approach. I would keep drinking my fruit-smoothies in the morning, along with a protein shake mid-morning, and a normal lunch, plus a normal dinner – just one serving at lunch and dinner, and no more than one dessert per week, Whenever else I was hungry I would drink a protein drink and lots of water. I also committed to walking every day for 30-60 minutes and going to the gym at least once per week.

“And, I committed to doing this until I saw the results I was looking for. I weighed and measured myself. But in two weeks, I had lost only one pound and zero inches.

“I was discouraged.

“But I was committed to stick with it, no matter what, for as long as it took.

“Three weeks in thee was still not much change.

“But at 4 weeks I started noticing a difference and by 12 weeks the scale read 20 pounds lighter – the same as I weighed in college. Most importantly I felt great and I experienced a sense of accomplishment!

Relationship goals

Leigh continued:

“I also decided to focus on developing better personal relationships with six people, including my mother. I had always felt that she was critical of me, this thought caused me to distance myself from her. I had a better relationship with my dad. So I decided to focus, instead, on what I loved and appreciated about her. For example, she was amazing with my kids.

“This is a little funny, but I was in the middle of a difficult time in life and hired a coach specific to this situation.  I felt sad about the loss of a friend and I found her wisdom really helpful. She suggested, ‘you only need six people, your pall bearers.’

“Since I have a tendency to enjoy and like many people, it made a lot of sense to me to focus my energy on a treasured few.

“I had always prided myself on being a loyal and committed friend and didn’t’ want to give any up.  Even though the suggestion of only 6 didn’t ring true for me, it helped me drop the strongly held belief, ‘I must keep all friends forever.’ I found releasing some relationships allowed room for some really awesome new ones to grow.

“I’m loving those now. And low and behold, I started enjoying hanging out with my mom, and began to realize I had a kick ass mother!”

Leigh summarized some of the keys to successful goal-setting, including the importance of setting small, measurable, and specific goals. She described her upcoming “Boot Camp” on overcoming habits and addictions. For more information, contact Leigh at

Following today’s podcast, we received this lovely note from Leigh:

Hi David and Rhonda,

I so loved being with you both today!! Thank you for being so gracious and welcoming about these ideas on how to modify habits and addictions! I love growing together.

 David, it really struck me how you were breaking things down into steps and making so clear for your listeners - it felt like your intellectual mind and your heart were going at the same time.

Rhonda, I love how you brought up ideas and framed things in such a clear way. You guys rock!!

When we finished up, I thought of a more thorough response to David’s question about slogging today. I was reminded of perfectionism and how I’m trying not to be so perfectionistic. I still remember David’s article on perfectionism from Psychology Today Magazine way back in 1980, when Feeling Good was first released. It was entitled, “The Perfectionist’s Script for Self-Defeat.”

I’ve been working on doing “B” work, and I’ve gotten so much more done and - when I don’t fall into perfectionism again - having so much more fun.

So, I like the idea of holding ourselves accountable, being committed to ourselves and our goals, and to letting ourselves do B work, instead of aiming for perfection. It seems kind of counter-intuitive, but that combo leads to getting more done and being a lot happier!

Maybe you have some insights, David or Rhonda? Much love to you both, Leigh

David wrote back:

Hi Leigh,

Thanks for the beautiful note. I have also struggled with perfectionism, especially when I was younger, and I agree with your conclusions 200%.

But perfectionism has many tentacles, and is always lurking in the shadows, waiting to jump out and grab us again!!


Rhonda wrote back:

Hi Leigh,

I also struggle with perfectionism, and when I am feeling overwhelmed I tell myself, “I have an abundance of time to accomplish all I want to do today, calmly, peacefully, and with unhurried grace.'”

That’s not an empty affirmation, but a positive statement created after writing out a Daily Mood Log, seeing the positives in my perfectionism, and looking at the distortions in my thoughts.


We hope you enjoyed this podcast, Rhonda, Leigh and David