Bad Habits

Michelle Espy couldn't stop being a slob.

Mindi Hartman couldn't stop shopping and Uche Odiatu couldn't stop arriving late.

So what did Espy, Hartman and Odiatu have in common? A bad habit they just can't break.

According to educator and life coach Judith Wright, almost all of us have bad habits or what Wright calls "soft addictions."

"It can be anything from nail-biting or compulsively checking your e-mail or gossiping or hair twirling," Wright said.

Wright, the author of "The Soft Addiction Solution," says soft addictions are normal, everyday activities done to excess. She says some addictions zone you out, like television or Internet, while others, like overeating or overusing gadgets like BlackBerrys, are the adult equivalent of thumb-sucking. Click here to take Wright's soft addiction quiz.

Soft addictions start early, according to Wright, and she sees more than boredom as the cause.

"The real issue is that they're stressed out. They're trying to comfort themselves."

When Is It a Problem?

It's a problem "when the behavior no longer just soothes you, but instead begins to bother you," Wright said.

Wright said these soft addictions could become very embarrassing for the addicts.

"You don't feel good that you are out of control and that something has this much power over you," she said.

Espy was embarrassed by how messy her house was. She said part of the problem was that she was just too busy to clean.

She owns a pet shop, goes to college and drives her kids around.

"By the time I get home, I'm pretty much drained," Espy said. "It's a problem, and I want to get it fixed."

Unlike Espy, Odiatu, a dentist who was always late, actually knew why.

"I'll often say yes to everything. And I'll see maybe 15, 16, 17 patients in a day. So you can imagine," Odiatu said. "It's a tight schedule."

His overscheduling took a toll on his wife, Kary, who was often left waiting.

"I just expect that he'll be late," Kary said. "I expect it, and I don't think that's a good way to live, expecting that someone won't be there, and that they're going to disappoint you again."

Soft Addictions Strain Relationships

Hartman felt she was disappointing her husband, Kirk, who said she bought useless things and spent too much money. Kirk was a busy farmer, while Hartman stayed at home with their two sons.

Hartman said she shopped because she's bored. "We live out in the country. We have nothing but land and cows to look at."

She knew how upset Kirk got with her shopping, so she hid the bills.

"It causes a lot of tension at the end of the month when the bank statements arrive," Hartman said.

"I usually find the bank statements [hidden] in the back of a cabinet, behind a whole bunch of other stuff," Kirk said. What upsets him the most is that she is not telling him the truth.

Wright worked with Hartman and found that she was shopping to fill a void in her life. That's often the case for most soft addictions.

"We keep going to them, hoping that they'll give us what it is we need. If I just have enough designer dresses, then I'll be loved. Or if I just gossip enough, then I'll have a connection with another person," Wright said.

Hartman related that emptiness in her life to her husband.

"He just needs to be around more often." She said that her shopping addiction worsened when her deepest feelings of loneliness started.

And, according to Hartman, that was around the time their son Alex got severely sick. During his recovery, she felt as if Kirk had abandoned her.

So, Hartman turned to shopping for comfort.

Finding the Reward

But what kind of comfort could Odiatu get out of being late?

People develop bad habits for one common reason, Wright said. The habit rewards them in some way.

"I get a feeling of self-importance for some reason," Odiatu said. "Everyone is waiting for me."

In their counseling session, Wright uncovered that Odiatu's lateness was really a cry for attention.

Similarly, in Espy's case, Wright found that deeper emotions were buried under the clutter in her home.

"I live for my kids and my animals," Espy said. She said her whole purpose was to make her family happy. She said she would start taking care of her own needs when the kids were gone.

Wright said that most soft addictions followed predictable patterns. A messy person, like Espy, found time through avoidance; Odiatu's tardiness could be a power play; and Hartman's overshopping soothed her loneliness.

However, the solutions to these soft addictions are less predictable and much more personal.

Finding a Solution

Wright spent a full day with the trio in 2006, and then put together a specific plan for each person.

Wright told Espy to add something to her life that she really enjoyed, something that gave her energy. That was photography.

"I have never had someone say, 'Go take pictures,'" she said. "It would feel really, really good to take pictures." Wright said Espy had given away too much of herself.

Because Espy was adding an activity she loved, Wright advised her to subtract something she didn't like. That was the messy house. So each day Espy would clean one small area of her house.

Wright told Odiatu to combat his lateness by taking care of himself in some small way. For Odiatu, that was getting a massage. However, Wright said adding a massage to his routine wouldn't suddenly make Odiatu punctual, but it was a step in the right direction.

"If you can add those things in that meet those deeper needs, those soft addictions kind of start releasing themselves," she said.

As for Hartman, the wife who overspent because she was lonely, Wright advised her to add romance back into her marriage.

Hartman told Wright she hadn't been on a date with her husband in 10 years. So Wright suggested that she limit her spending budget to something doable — $200 a week — and give herself weekly dates with her husband.

Small Steps Toward Change

Wright didn't just let these three go it alone. She continued coaching them over the phone to keep tabs on their progress.

A few weeks after their first meeting, Hartman was still sticking to her $200-a-week household budget by using cash to stay within those limits. She was also hiding less from her husband.

"I'm able now to visually put items I know I really don't need on one side of my purse [and] things I really do need, on the other side of my purse. And I actually feel good about myself when I walk out of a store," she said. Hartman and her husband now have a 4-month-old baby.

Odiatu was making more time for himself, and he was on time about three-quarters of the time. He told us last week that he's still working on his mastery of time management, and while he can't say he's cured, he believes "there's hope for me." Odiatu and his wife have a daughter, Kylie, who recently celebrated her first birthday.

As for Espy, she used her passion for photography to clean her entire house, simply by taking before-and-after photos.

"I really feel like I'm getting more control and taking my life back. And I seem to be happier," she said last year. She's still doing well today.

Espy says getting rid of her bad habit has given her whole life a new perspective.

This report originally aired on July 7, 2006.