HABITS! Stuck in Groundhog Day? Here Are Six Ways to Break the Cycle
"Winning is a habit. Unfortunately, so is losing." - Vince Lombardi
I have lost 5 kilos. I have been losing the same 5 kilos twice a year, every year since I was twelve. Altogether, I have lost and then gained back the weight of a fully grown bearded seal. Unfortunately, I am not alone; research has shown that 97% of those who have lost 10% or more of their body weight regain all of it back within 5 years.
Over the years, I have made pledges to cultivate several good habits. I have tried to study for one hour every day and wear makeup before I leave the house. I have sworn that I will visit the gym three times a week, help my daughters with their homework, run daily, practice the piano (OK, I did not really do that) and many other wonderful and rewarding routines. Sure enough, I follow up on my promise for a few days, weeks, sometimes months and then slowly, inexorably I start skipping days, and soon I stop entirely. I push that rock all the way to the top of the hill, briefly enjoy the view and then satisfied with myself, I let go of the rock to pat myself in the back, and it rolls all the way back down.
The sheer futility of the whole thing is astounding, and the wasted energy could power a small city, I am sure. I have reflected long and hard on why this happens. What is it that makes a smart, capable woman such as me so prone to repeated failures? Shouldn't we be learning from our mistakes? Why can't we stick to habits that are so obviously good for us and is there a way to keep that rock from rolling back down the hill?
When trying to break bad habits/establish good long term habits, here are some things that don't work:
Bargaining with your self
When my dad suffered a stroke, and after months of rehabilitation he managed to walk out of his building unaided, the first thing he did was hobble to the corner store and buy a pack of cigarettes. His doctor had made it clear to him that even one pack of cigarettes would trigger another stroke, and this is precisely what happened a few weeks later. He hadn't smoked for months, but when he started feeling normal again, he forgot the months of suffering and went straight back to his old habits.
Want more examples? They are everywhere. A friend of mine developed a stack of bad habits which gave him an almost fatal heart attack. His doctor assured him that unless he replaced his bad eating and excess drinking with exercise and restraint, he could die. Get it? DIE! If this doesn't scare, you nothing will. And it did scare him, indeed. For a year, he got up early and walked five kilometres. After work, he went straight home, ate sensibly and went to bed early. Then he started meeting his friends once or twice a week after work and drunk something non-alcoholic and ate a salad. Soon, he would have one drink and a few fries from someone else's plate. After a month of that, he was back to his old habits and had stopped walking. When we met, I reminded him of what the doctor had advised. The next day, he went walking and did not meet his friends after work, but the fear effect only lasted a few days before he gave up again.
These examples are not outliers. In every case and given enough time, a bad habit will eventually win over fear, threats or rewards, unless…
After years of pushing that rock up the hill again and again, I finally understood the mechanics of beating a bad habit, and I will share them here with you.
Replace a bad habit with a good habit
"A nail is driven out by another nail; habit is overcome by habit."
If you usually have a drink when you get home, replace it with a pot of tea or with tonic water which will give you the illusion of a G&T. If you are sipping something, the moment passes, and you are no longer at the mercy of a well-entrenched routine. I have found out that even 30 minutes of diversion is enough to beat the need for an early evening drink.
Make the new habit easy to follow
The more obstacles you have to overcome to practise your new habit, the more likely you are to give up on it. Removing impediments and temptations is the key to success. Here is an example: To make a morning run routine stick, lay your running clothes next to your bed the night before. When you wake up in the morning slip right into your running outfit instead of your PJs before you do anything else. Being dressed for running is half the battle. Your brain is thinking, I am dressed to go running, I might as well go.
Similarly, to stick to a diet, your home should always be well-stocked with alternatives to what you would typically reach for when you get the munchies.
Give the new habit a convenient home in your daily routine
Unless you can fit your new practice at a reasonable spot in your diary, your determination will fade. You need a natural place for your habit to fit effortlessly. For example, I have established a 10 min evening habit of planning my next day while I wait for my turn to go to the bathroom.
It is easier to stick to a habit if it becomes part of a chain of habits, where one follows the other. Here is what my habit stack looks like:
Every other day I walk 20 min to the supermarket. On the way, there is a long staircase, and I run it up and down twice. During the walk, I listen to a book about a subject I want to know more about. At the supermarket, I shop for the next two days picking healthy items because I am on a diet. I also want to save money, so I look through the daily deals. Then I walk back carrying two equal weight bags.
This is a chain of good habits, and one follows and reinforces the other. Individually they are small, but together they make quite a bit of difference to my life.
Avoid associations – break associations – make new associations
Bad habits can attach themselves like barnacles to other bad habits and create associations. Cigarettes and alcohol is the most obvious example, but of course, there are several others. Eating aimlessly in front of the TV or the computer, having dessert after a meal etc. You need to break such habits together, or the one that remains will resurrect the other.
You may need to break a place or time association. For example, if you buy a doughnut from the shop next to the bus stop on the way to work, to break that habit chose a different route that bypasses the doughnut shop rather than try to walk past it and resist the temptation.
You may also have people associations. For example, you may always smoke when you go out with a particular group of friends. If you want to quit smoking, you need to avoid them or meet them in an environment where smoking is forbidden.
Making new associations is a reliable way to keep new habits. For example, associating a relaxing yoga class with meeting a friend and having a healthy meal afterwards are all pleasurable habits that reinforce each other through their association.
Assign achievable goals
Your new habits must have achievable goals if they are to stick. Here is an example. When I first picked up running, I did everything correctly. I planned the time, the route and established a positive association. In short, I did all those things I just suggested except, as I built strength and endurance, I kept going for longer and longer runs.
Suddenly, the run was too long to fit into my schedule, and it was too big of a chore to "just do it". Soon I used every excuse to skip the daily run until the habit died an inglorious death. A few years later, when I decided to pick up running again, instead of making the run longer and longer, I gave it a specific length (5K) and a 30 min time slot. If I felt competitive, I would run faster, if not, I would do a leisurely 30 min jog. I planned three 5K routes around my house and never tried to go further. This is a habit that stuck because of this small shift in how I thought about my run.
An overarching goal can occasionally help you stick to your smaller goals long enough to turn them into habits. One popular method to build habits is called the 21/90 rule. The rule is simple enough. Commit to a personal or professional goal for 21 straight days. After three weeks, the pursuit of that goal has become a habit. Once you've established that habit, you continue to do it for another ninety days to have a good chance of getting it entrenched. Your main goal helps you overcome slips and stay the course.
In conclusion, from avoiding negative emotions to ditching junk food, getting rid of bad habits will make you a happier person. With a bit of planning and strategizing, this challenging undertaking has the potential to become a joyful and extremely life-enhancing breakthrough.
"The secret of change is to focus all your energy NOT on fighting the old but on BUILDING the new." – Socrates