Why break your habits of a lifetime? Because they might be bad for you!
Bad habits might be the reason you are not achieving your health and fitness goals. Or it might be a lack of good habits. Either way, your habits can make or break your chances of achieving your health and fitness goals. Your habits run your life, they are your lifestyle. Improve your habits, improve your life.
What is a habit?
Habits come in all shapes and sizes.
They can be everyday actions that you do time and again that you’re not even conscious of. For example, perhaps you clear your throat a lot. Everyone else notices it but you’re not aware of it, it’s just something you’ve always done.
Habits can be more involved. Perhaps you have a habit of throwing a few nuts in your mouth every time you walk past the cupboard where the nuts are kept. You’re conscious of that one and it’s something you could choose not to do. But you do it anyway.
Perhaps you have a particular way you like to set out your lunch paraphernalia when you eat at your desk. Drink just there, top left. Salt cellar top right. Knife and fork either side. Napkin folded but not on your knee, just put on the other side of the keyboard for easy access. Phone on divert. Carrier bag under the desk for putting rubbish in. There, ready! That routine constitutes a habit. You may not even have broken it down like this and thought about it. But all the elements of that habit are deliberate and you’d feel something was wrong if one of them was missing.
What compels you to do the things in these three examples?
The anatomy of a habit
There’s always a trigger for a habit. In the examples above the trigger might be, in order, when you’re about to speak; walking past the nut cupboard; the clock showing midday.
At the end of a habit there’s always a reward or a benefit. It might be feeling that you are ready to speak without gurgling; the brain’s pleasure response from the salty crunchy nuts; the feeling of fullness and contentedness from the satisfying meal.
In between the trigger and the reward are the actions. That’s the thing or collection of things that you do.
It’s a lot easier to change the actions than it is to remove the habit altogether. If you have a bad habit, you’re better off keeping the habit but changing it into a good one by changing the actions. Same trigger, same reward, different actions.
Changing bad habits
Here are a couple of examples
You’ve had dinner, you’re watching TV, you’re craving chocolate. There’s an ad break, your bladder’s getting full. There’s your trigger. Off to the fridge to raid the bar of chocolate. You take 4 squares and you have a little ritual. You like to cut them all into individual squares with a knife, put them on a plate and savour them. A bit later on you do the same again. You’ve had 8 squares. You do that most nights. That’s your little chocolate habit. The problem is that’s quite a lot of extra calories, maybe 300 a day? It soon adds up.
Why not change the activity? Same trigger, but this time you wash some fresh juicy grapes and snip off a bunch. You can still savour each one, you’ll still get the sweetness. And after a few days the reward response will be the same too. And because grapes are full of fibre and are more filling, you’re unlikely to overfeed. You’ll maybe do 100 calories and get a lot more goodness.
There! You’ve changed a bad habit into a good habit.
Deciding not to go to the gym
You get home, you’re in your suit. It’s warm, it’s welcoming, it smells of yummy food and you’re not sure where your kit is. There are too many reasons why it feels good to stay home and too many barriers to getting out to the gym. You have a relaxing evening and enjoy a nice meal but feel a little guilty that you didn’t make it to the gym.
What’s the trigger for going to the gym? In this case it’s getting home. And the reward? Well, aside from the endorphin rush, it’s the prospect of a guilt free meal with the satisfaction of knowing you’ve done something good for your body. Whether you go to the gym or not the trigger is there, the meal is there. The middle bit can be changed. Try this…
Get your kit ready the night before. Leave it downstairs. When you get home, don’t even go upstairs. Leave your suit downstairs to be dealt with later, change in to your kit and get back out there.
Or better still, consider ‘leaving work’ to be the trigger, take your kit to work with you in the morning and go to the gym on the way home. Don’t even go home first, just get it done before you even get there.
Some habits are better than others. So called keystone habits tend to have a knock-on effect to the rest of your life by helping to create other good habits.
Food logging is a well-known keystone habit. You can see why. It will help you
- Become more calorie aware and get into the habit of choosing less calorie dense food.
- Get into the habit of eating more fruit and vegetables.
- Identify the times when you have unhealthy snacks and little ‘treats’.
- Adopt a healthy pattern of eating which itself becomes your eating habit.
Another well known keystone habit is exercise. To me that’s a bit broad brush. Everyone knows exercise is good for you but not everyone exercises. How can we be more specific? You need an exercise habit that works for you and that will help you maintain that habit. My favourite is an early morning exercise habit. Try this
- Get your kit ready the night before.
- Put it somewhere that is hard to ignore when you get up – like on the stool in the bathroom where you brush your teeth and where you tend to get dressed.
- When you get up, get your kit on.
- Do whatever else you need to do – take in some liquid, have a shot of coffee.
- Get out there and get your exercise done. Maybe that’s at home, maybe you go out for a run or maybe you go on the way to work. In any case, if you’ve got your kit on straight away, it’s harder to then back out and take it all off again.
Try adopting this habit and see if you don’t focus on other aspects of your physical wellbeing – lifting weights, stretching, going to yoga, taking a long walk at the weekend, doing some strenuous gardening. Just being fitter will make you more inclined to be more active.
In my view, a good keystone habit, perhaps controversial, is weighing yourself daily. We’ve written before about weighing yourself. As long as you understand the noise on the trend line is water variation, then weighing yourself helps you keep focused on the goal and your progress towards the goal. An ongoing focus on the goal will rub off on other areas of your life such as nutrition and exercise.
Shift your balance
Think about your habits.
What are your bad habits? Can you identify the triggers? What benefit or reward do you get from them? How can you change the middle bit – the actions – so you still get the reward but the habit becomes a good one?
What new – good – habits can you establish? In particular, what can you do to make your exercise habit stick or your new eating regime permanent?
Shift the balance away from bad habits to emphasise good habits. Make sure you have good triggers and, above all, good rewards. What could your rewards be? How about
- An endorphin rush
- A sense of achievement
- A full stomach
- Serotonin release
- Knowing you are a little bit closer to your target
- Praise or compliments
- Feeling empowered
… and many more. Identify the trigger, take some healthy actions and get hooked on these rewards.
The take home message
Your life, much more than you might realise, is a series of habits executed throughout the day, day after day. Your destiny has a lot to do with the habits you adopt.
Bad habits affect your life and your longevity more than you think. Good habits can improve your lot enormously.
Change your bad habits – break your habits of a lifetime – and adopt new habits. This will change your life. If procrastination is a bad habit of yours then change it. Start now.