In a simplistic view, habits define your life. They are the little things that you do each day without thinking and enable you to focus on other things. Think how much less time you would have if you had to focus on breathing, driving or typing. Therefore it is essential that your habits connect with your goals, otherwise you are going to find it very difficult to meet them and it will frequently feel that you are fighting against yourself.
Recognising the ‘bad’ habits
The difficulty with habits is, by their nature of being a subconscious activity, is you don’t always recognise them as habits; and certainly in my life I’ve recently noticed several ‘bad’ habits have formed without me even realising.
“He who permits himself to tell a lie once, finds it much easier to do it a second and third time, till at length it becomes habitual.”
My husband and I usually go food shopping together, so when he was ill and I went on my own I bought a Wispa as a treat. The next time I went on my own I did the same and before I knew it I was buying a Wispa every time I did the shopping on my own. The purchasing of the Wispa was no longer a treat but a habit. A few weeks ago I felt tired at work so bought a can of Dr Pepper to give me a caffeine boost (I don’t drink tea or coffee). A few days later I was tired again so I bought another can and it wasn’t long before I was buying one every week day.
Once I recognised these habits I had a choice to make; was I happy with them or did I want to stop them. An additional chocolate bar occasionally and 1 can of drink four days a week is not too bad, but when I look at my goals they are not compatible with “feel good about myself, by being healthy, fit and looking good”. Plus it would be better for my finances if I saved that money each day (looking at my goals with that in mind, I’m surprised I don’t have anything in about financial position, just income).
Stopping the ‘bad’ habits
Recognising a habit that doesn’t help achieve your goals is the first step, but the second is taking action. There is plenty of advice on how to stop or change habits:
- How to quit a bad habit by answering four power questions
- Installing a new habit and breaking an old one
- Get rid of bad habits
For me the best approach is cold turkey. I have to just stop. In the example of Dr Pepper, the habit I want to change is not stopping Dr Pepper, but not drinking it at work. Therefore for the last 6 days I have not bought a can and have got to the point where I can talk my self out of being one as I would have to start again (along the lines of Jerry Seinfelds’ breaking the chain that was popular on the internet a year or so ago). But if I go somewhere Dr Pepper is available, such as my parents’ house, than I can have some. This makes it easier to stop as its not a complete stop, but there are clear boundaries to when I can and can’t have it.
Developing ‘good’ habits
Unfortunately it is harder to develop ‘good’ habits as they rarely seem to form unconsciously. The most common piece of advice to develop new habits is to do the habit every day for 30 days. However, I know this doesn’t work for me.
I used a tick box approach to remind me to floss my teeth. After 30 consecutive days I stopped using the list and instantly stopped flossing as well! I admit my flossing is probably better than it was before tried to instill the habit, but on average it probably works out as once a week rather than every day as I’d hoped.
Again there is plenty of advice about developing habits like these posts from Zen Habits:
- Engineer Life: Set up habits so its hard to fail
- 13 things to avoid when changing habits
- The habit change cheatsheet: 29 ways to successfully ingrain a behavior
So my plan is to
- identify habits that will help me move towards my goals and make the link very clear in my mind how the habit contributes, for instance eating the fruit in my lunchbox that tends to go home at the end of day will help me feel good about myself, by being healthy, fit and looking good
- develop associations and triggers that remind me of the habit I am wanting to develop, for example I am keen to write more frequently on my blog than in the last year, so now on the days I don’t go to work I am working on posts as soon as I get up
- develop mantras to help if I feel myself weakening, I do a lot of talking in my head so hopefully this will have a high impact
“First we make our habits, then our habits make us.” – Charles C. Noble
What habits have you formed without realising it? How do you consciously form new ones?