Make It or Break It: Habits
We tend to be consumed with our habits.
Some are nervous ones such as biting nails or twirling hair strands. Bad habits.
Flossing teeth twice every day because you cannot stand the feel of food between your teeth and because it stops plaque from building up helps keep the dentist at bay. Healthy habit.
With Thanksgiving coming up, overeating is a holiday habit that can make you sick and lead to other health issues. Nauseating habit.
Any addiction to alcohol, drugs, tobacco, even carbs and sugar. Dangerous, seriously bad habits.
A habit is not a routine. How do they differ? We wrote about this in a prior blog “One of Life’s Great Comforts: Consistency” (March 2022). Routines are “eating the same foods with the same ingredients, taking the same route when walking or running, going to the same theaters and restaurants and often with the same people.” They are conscious and planned. Habits are not thought out and are usually done almost unconsciously.
To stop a bad habit cycle such as texting less at night, snacking at your computer on too many carbs which might cause weight gain or multitasking—working on the computer while on the phone--require diligence that can take time and effort. And often repeated attempts.
Exactly how long does it take to break a habit? There’s the old chestnut that it takes about three weeks. But, like any timeline, it varies, depending on your seriousness about doing so and how long you’ve had the habit. Putting yourself under the gun is probably going to exacerbate your need for the habit to relieve the stress of meeting that expectation. We don’t believe in timelines, per se. It’s an individual process and depends on multiple factors, including your age, overall health, determination and whether it’s threatening. If the latter, you should begin working to break it immediately.
Why do we develop habits, good and bad? It’s a peculiar reward system. All habits must have a takeaway as an incentive to continue them. If you bite your nails, perhaps it calms you down. Consume chocolate after dinner each night, it might boost your brain’s serotonin. Alcohol, substance abuse or tobacco habit, the reward is the buzz of course, but it might also be the social connection of bar buddies or a smoking group. Have a thing for stilettos? These high heels make you look statelier, your legs shapelier and add height to your size, especially if small. However, if you’re making too many trips to the podiatrist, the shoes are bad for your back and who wants their feet to gnarl up like gingerroot? It’s the reward of looking good or feeling great that makes that bad habit so hard to break.
Even thinking you can’t do something—find your way driving—or getting from point A to B can be a learned bad habit. Find a way. Possibly start using WAZ on your phone or go somewhere and feign confidence and try again. It’s amazing how practice can help you succeed.
If you’re in the habit of staying up late at night to binge watch “Suits” (which we both loved) but need to get up early for your job, you may find yourself in a bad cycle. But you can make the shift to becoming a morning person. A New York Times article titled, “Wake up Earlier: Ways to Become a Morning Person,” suggests ways to break this late-night habit. It says, “Acknowledge the habit and then reward yourself immediately when you break it.” Maybe the incentive to wake up early is to know that a good cup of coffee or a terrific breakfast awaits you. Other habits require different solutions.
Some people have so many bad habits that may interfere with their having a smooth, calm, healthy lifestyle. We’d like to help by offering some tips on how to eliminate them. And know that if you veer off course, that’s okay in the short-term. If you switch from four cups of coffee that you were making because they made you nervous and were causing heart palpitations, go down to one a day if you can or gradually to three, then two and one. Your brain will survive the momentary jolt of how many and how long it takes.
To start a new healthier habit, according to research done by the University College London, takes far longer and sometimes 66 days, give or take a few days. So, brace yourself if you want to start walking daily for 30 minutes, for example.
Here are a few habit-breaking tips; feel free to share yours as well. If necessary, consider consulting an expert so you break your habit successfully for your physical health and mindset, and remember it may take several efforts. If you fall off, get back on the horse. And remember, there’s a tremendous number of experts to help, from a recovery institution to individual therapist, psychiatrist who may prescribe drugs or talk therapy, or a therapy group. Vet experts with friends in whom you feel safe confiding.
Avoid extremes. Take habit breaking in small steps and maybe one at a time. It’s a process. Research whether it’s best to stop cold turkey or gradually. Professionals have different views but keep the goal of abstinence or “recovering” in mind. If it’s a weight problem, cut the sugar, bread, anything white. Write down what you eat; track the calories with an app. Plan meals ahead. Perhaps, consult a nutritionist for guidance. If you deprive yourself too much and your diet consists mostly of rabbit food, this new habit might not last.
Is part of the problem a chocolate addiction? You might ease off by eating it in small doses and maybe every other day or only on weekends. Learn to find some savory snacks, which are healthy but again in moderation. Try kale chips or snack on a small handful of garbanzo beans that are healthy and a good source of fiber. Substitute dried fruits, berries or nuts for M&M’s. Instead of a cookie or pastry for a snack to reward yourself after completing a tough assignment, try cheese and healthy crackers. But again, moderation is key and be sure cheese is among your safe list of healthy foods.
Draft a personal habit-breaking playbook. Like writing a paper, an article, doing a project or even developing a travel plan, produce a roadmap and timeline. It helps to visualize the process and is something to check in with and maybe check off every day. Add stars when you’ve done well or some other system.
Use crutches as reminders. Write messages to yourself on Post-It-Notes and stick them on walls, on your desk at home and work, by your computer, dinner table, fridge or even on your person to help you remember to stop a habit. If you’re about to go for a cigarette with your cup of coffee, a long-held habit for many smokers, stick a note right by the coffee pot with a picture of a cigarette with a speech bubble that says, “No nicotine for you today. Good work!” as a reminder.
Change your surroundings. If you have an eating problem and make beelines for your refrigerator too often, pretend there’s a lock on it and you can only access it at mealtime. If you sit at your computer a lot and are too sedentary, start a habit of getting up and walking up and down stairs or around your apartment or home every hour or so. Your legs and back will thank you. Set an alarm on your phone. If you need a physical or aerobic boost, vacuum or clean. Doing so gets you moving, it’s mindless and can help clear you head. Plus, the results are quick and tangible.
Slow down and be present. You are about to eat a brownie or a See’s chocolate. You enter a fabulous French pastry shop and eye the croissants and baguettes as Barbara recently did. You tell yourself, “Window shopping is enough. I’ve enjoyed the sight and smells.” And then you leave, feeling a different kind of success! In other cases, try this: Stop. Think. Breathe. STB. This is when you can deflect by substituting a “bad” habit for a good one. Instead of chomping down on something fattening or unhealthy, why not take a long, slow walk or a run that is good for your body and your mind. Instead of drinking a second glass of wine or alcohol, why not call a good, trusted friend and have coffee and conversation? Make that your new routine once a week.
Vent to a trusted food buddy. It can be a spouse, other family member or friend. Getting help or even getting together with a buddy is always healthy and can keep you on track. Maybe they need your help, too. Make yourself accountable to that person. Many people trying to lose weight have a food buddy to go through the process with. Or sometimes it’s worth paying an expert to succeed, but slowly.
Go from bad to good—the old switcheroo. A smoker? Join a singing group and realize that you need good breath control and voice tone and quality to make it into the choir of your dreams. Give up the tobacco and those smoking breaks and put your time and energy into learning new music or an instrument. Join a band, chorus or orchestra for the fellowship. It’s a win-win for doing so will make you feel good, you’re learning something new which is food for your brain and the music you produce makes others feel good too.
Give it time. A rash doesn’t heal overnight neither do a broken arm, leg or wrist. We are such an instant society and breaking a habit is harder to heal than many other conditions. It takes a while to get that “good feeling” from washing a bad habit out of your head. Then, gradually slip into a new healthy one and break it in like you would a new pair of shoes—but not those old stilettos.