ericksonian hypnosis for breaking habits with tasks

Ericksonian Hypnosis: Breaking Habits with Tasks

Breaking habits with tasks

In Ericksonian hypnosis, often we assign tasks to our clients. Their purpose is to break apart old behavior patterns, loosen belief systems and/or build skills that are helpful in having the client solve their own problem. The tasks may be completed during the session or they can be assigned as homework.

Symptom As Task

One of Erickson’s most frequent interventions was to give the symptom as a task and alter the task in some way. As an example, he might get a commitment from a nail-biter to bite their nails at a prescribed time. They might be required to bite each nail for a certain length of time. Assigning the problem behavior as a task changes the context through which the behavior is filtered. Think about it for a moment…

If you were forced to eat your favorite food would it be so enticing?

Ericksonian Hypnosis - down a garden path

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When a Pattern is Altered It Falls Apart

Often with the habitual behavior patterns, once the behavior is viewed through a different lens, the patterns falls apart. It’s like the straw that broke the camel’s back or a balloon popping. You can’t get the genie back in the bottle! OK, enough with the metaphors.

Another frequent “symptom as task” homework assignment involved attaching some unpleasant behavior to the symptom, especially if the symptom was a bad habit. Erickson sometimes prescribed healthy behaviors, such as walking, in this way. So, if a client wanted to stop smoking, Erickson might explain that they could smoke, but they needed to buy one cigarette at a time and walk to the store each time they wanted a smoke. This both encouraged healthier behavior and altered the typical behavioral pattern. Usually folks got tired of the habit fairly quickly and stopped on their own.

Remember, you can alter a pattern just about any way you can think of.

Ways of Altering Behaviors

  • Frequency/rate
  • Duration
  • Time of day
  • Location in the body
  • Intensity
  • Quality
  • Sequence
  • Interrupting
  • Jumping to the end
  • Adding or subtracting elements
  • Breaking up large pieces of a sequence into small pieces
  • Performing the symptom without the pattern
  • Performing the pattern without the symptom
  • Linking the pattern to another (usually undesired) pattern (symptom-contingent tasks)


Exercise: Altering a Pattern with Task Assignment

You can do this yourself or use it as an exercise to help you get better creating tasks for your clients.

1.Think of a problem, unwanted behavior.
2.Design a task that alters the behavior pattern in some way. For instance, if a person has a fear of public speaking, find out in what order the symptoms occur. Have the client imagine (first person) speaking in public and having the symptoms occur in a different order.

Rapport & Commitment

Remember to do this with rapport and get a commitment from your client before you reveal the task assignment. Otherwise, you won’t have the level of “oomph” to make it work. There are tons of stories of Erickson telling his clients that he could solve their problem but they weren’t going to like it. He would only reveal the task after the client begged for the task and promised they would do as he said. Case in point: A woman whose weight would yo-yo, came to see Dr. Erickson. She would get down to her ideal weight, then immediately start to binge eat. After she promised Erickson, she would do as he asked, he told her to gain a specific amount of weight. She begged to be released from her promise!

Through this task, Erickson changed the order of the woman’s typical behavioral pattern. She went from losing weight, hitting her target and then gaining it to gaining first, hitting her target and then losing it! She kept the weight off because she never again wanted to go through the “ordeal” of gaining weight. Through changing the order of the pattern and making gaining weight an onerous task, Erickson changed the way she thought in a profound manner.

Think of it this way…

Previously, this client thought of binging and gaining weight as something she got to do once she hit her goal weight. The binging was a relief after a long, arduous dieting process. Erickson used the task to flip this pattern on its head and make gaining weight the arduous task!

Since folks sometimes take things literally I should tell you–I’m not suggesting you tell all your weight loss clients to gain weight! Remember, Erickson was an M.D. Each client’s situation is different. I am suggesting that you can look at the behavioral patterns of your clients, change one or more elements and assign that change as a task.


About The Author:

Keith Livingston is the main instructor for Hypnosis 101. Keith has been studying hypnosis since he was a boy and doing hypnosis & NLP training since 1997.

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  1. Thank you so much for making hypnosis techniques easy to understand. I’ve been using your advice for over half a year and they’ve been helping dramatically.
    Thank you!

  2. Stephen Brooks, the world’s leading expert in Ericksonian Psychotherapy and Indirect Hypnosis, states that prescribing a patient a symptom to carry out at a certain time, or for a certain amount of repetitions, brings the symptom into the realm of control – rather than attempting to alter the symptom so that it “falls apart”, the goal is the transfer the symptom from unconscious “habit” or “pattern of behaviour” into conscious “deliberate action”, thus making the patient realise that it can, in fact, be under control. This is called “Paradoxical Intervention” – as far as Erickson assigning “tasks” goes, they were more metaphorical, i.e., a constipated patient unpacking bags as a metaphor for clearing out their bowels, or laying in bed for an hour through the day in order to avoid feeling “rushed off their feet”.

    1. The main goal in working with a problem behavior is typically to get the client to behave differently. “Conscious control” and/or “realization” may or may not be a part of that. The patient realizing that a pattern can be controlled consciously is only a goal insofar as it helps the old pattern “fall apart” and a new behavior develop. Conscious control certainly is one strategy for changing behaviors. However, many times, altering the pattern in some small way does cause the pattern to lose its power or “fall apart” as I call it.

      I’ve seen it happen with phobias, for instance. Once you get the strategy for producing the phobia you can alter it in some way. Let’s say a person sees a spider, makes a picture (in their mind) of a spider that scared them when they were 6, hears (inside their mind) the scream they screamed when they were 6 and then feels frightened. You get the client to change that pattern in some way. Maybe they change the sequence. Maybe they change some quality of the image or feeling. Maybe they change out content of the image or sound. Oftentimes some shift will make it so they can’t get back to the phobic feelings! This happens whether or not they’ve realized that they’ve brought the pattern under conscious control. In fact, these kinds of changes can be done without the client’s conscious awareness involved at all.

      Good thought about metaphor. I love metaphor. Erickson was a master at creating metaphors that helped people break patterns. Sometimes the tasks Erickson assigned were more metaphorical in nature–sometimes not. Certainly having a metaphor that the unconscious mind can understand is helpful.

      It reminds me of the story about the boy who wet his bed. Erickson assigned him the task of working on his handwriting if his bed was wet. Handwriting involves muscle control. So does not wetting the bed. In that case, the metaphor may have been an important component. Erickson also had the boy’s mother involved. She would rise at dawn to check the boy’s bed. If it was wet, she would wake him to practice handwriting.

      Well, there’s some motivation there! Also some family dynamics. And, of course, metaphor.


  3. Gosh, I’m going to have to find out more about Stephen Brooks! I don’t find any reference at all to his work in any of books I have on Ericksonian Hypnosis. Perhaps an excuse for a few more books!


    (nor, madam, will I change your oil…)

    1. Hi Jill,
      I could use a few more specifics before I respond more fully…

      Are you currently working as a hypnotherapist?
      What kinds of issues/problems are you working with?
      What is your specific need to learn a confusion induction as opposed to other inductions?


  4. Thanks Keith, always great to hear examples of Dr. Erickson’s work, it seems to me this is like a break state over a prolonged period of time. And as you said, allowing those patterns to erode and fall away as they become obvious and muddled in the client’s mind on why they were there in the first place. Thanks for your perspectives.

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