Breaking Bad Habits and Forming Good Ones

It all depends on the habit. And I define a habit as something we do automatically with little, if any, forethought. Something devoid of conscious choice. It could be smoking, drinking, excessive eating, chewing gum, twisting paperclips as we listen, saying “you know” every few words, drinking coffee every half hour.

Or it could be organizing your clothes before you go to bed, checking the doors to see if they’re locked, jogging before breakfast, eating apples for lunch, reviewing personal goals every morning, smiling at everyone you meet, reading in bed every night, showering before breakfast.

Whether it’s a good habit or a bad habit depends on its effects on your life. If it helps you to achieve your goals. Brings you happiness, health, and prosperity. Adds meaning to your life. Makes you more effective. Then it’s probably a good habit. But if all it does is impede your effectiveness, waste your time, alienate your family and friends or decrease your life expectancy, it’s very likely a bad habit.

Before you attempt to break any bad habits, you must be convinced that you want to. The benefits must be obvious. The motivators must be there. Otherwise you will likely fail in your efforts.

It’s always rewarding to feel that you are in control of your own life. That might be motivation enough. If so, start breaking some of those patterns of living that sap you of any feeling of excitement and spontaneity. Stop spending every Thanksgiving Day at Mother’s. Don’t go away with the same couple every Labor Day weekend. Don’t order pizza every Tuesday night. Don’t return to the same Florida resort every year. Stop eating in the same restaurants all the time. Make a conscious choice each time. Don’t be bound by the force of habit.

Some specific habits, such as smoking, drinking, overeating, may be more difficult to break. Greater motivation is required to initiate and maintain the greater effort that is necessary. Get a handle on the harmful effects of the habit. If you’re convinced that smoking will reduce your life expectancy by 16.4 years or that lack of exercise will double the risk of a heart attack, you may have the kind of incentive you need.

Once you feel motivated to proceed, be sure to set realistic goals. Losing 20 lbs. in one week, for instance, is not a realistic goal. a long-term goal, say 3 to 6 months. Break it down into monthly and weekly goals. Even daily goals are advisable for some habits. Goals produce deadlines. Deadlines produce a certain amount of stress. But they also produce results. That’s why we’re so effective at work.

Now, practice self-discipline. Train yourself to accomplish those daily and weekly goals you set for yourself. Don’t let yourself slip once. The first slip spells disaster. For it becomes progressively easier to slip the second time, and the third — until you’re back in your old ways again. If your daily objective is to jog for 20 minutes every morning, then jog for 20 minutes every morning. Regardless of whether it’s cold and rainy or whether you don’t feel that great. Always keep the long-term rewards in mind. Don’t succumb to the immediate rewards — such as the comfort of a warm bed. In time you will have formed a habit – a good habit. And good habits are as hard to break as bad ones.

The same self-discipline is needed in breaking a habit. If you want to stop smoking or drinking, don’t take that first cigarette or first drink. If you do, it’s too easy to take the second and third.

As an aid to self-discipline, declare your intentions to family and friends. Once you commit yourself publicly, it will be more difficult — and embarrassing — to back out. Enlist a partner if possible. Two or more people trying to break or form the same habit provides reinforcement for each other. And there’ll be a greater chance of making it fun. It’s so much easier to form a new habit if it’s enjoyable. Be prepared to reward yourself if you achieve your goal. That delayed vacation. New wardrobe. Whatever is meaningful to you.

And remember, there’s no such thing as “can’t”. If you want to do something badly enough, you can do it. If you don’t believe me, how do you think you would react if someone put a gun to your head and threatened to blow your brains out unless you kicked the habit. You’d probably kick it.

And some habits are as deadly as a gun at your head.