Then Stop Doing That

Phew, it’s done. I’ve been promising a post on habits; correcting bad ones and developing good ones, and I’m glad I’ve finally delivered.

Wait, wut? I don’t recall seeing a post on habits, Andrew. Several promises of one coming soon, but nothing on habits.

Welllll, actually, yes you have. That’s what I’ve been writing for the last week.

In “If it’s Hard, Its Hard” and “If its Not Hard, Its Not Hard” I wrote about choosing exercises that are enjoyable. Having fun with your workout makes it easier to show up, and do the doing. The same goes with habits. If you want to develop a new habit, or break an old one, don’t make it hard on yourself. This is a place where taking the easier approach is good.

So, don’t pick your oldest, most ingrained habit to break. Don’t pick the most challenging new habit you want to learn. Start small, pick something easy.

In “Give in to Your Cravings” I talked about cheat days and rewards. Making and breaking habits is not a light switch. You don’t (generally) just decide, “Today, and every day going forward I will do (THING)” and then you do (THING). I said we’re not robots and I meant it. The level of discipline necessary to simply switch on or off a habit is beyond most of us.

But, didn’t you also say that you decided, after 45 years, to stop cracking your knuckles, and you did? Yes, but not instantly. I still find myself tempted, and in moments of weakness I sometimes even crack that one knuckle that hurts if I don’t. The pressure builds in the joint and it makes me nuts, and I’ve just gotta pop it.

Then I forgive myself, move on, and continue to work toward never doing so again. And in that same post, didn’t I also mention that we need to forgive ourselves when we fail? Why yes, yes I did. To strive for perfection is fine and noble, to expect it is foolish and self defeating. If you expect yourself to be perfect, when you slip you’re far more likely to give up.

Finally, I talked about training your cravings. Don’t try to quit sugar cold turkey; taper off and find a healthier substitute. By way of example, I now eat 85% cacao dark chocolate rather than milk chocolate, and got there in stages; 60% dark, 70% dark, 75%, 80%, 85%. I still like milk chocolate, but if I need something sweet, the dark will do. So, if you have a bad habit to break, find a substitute and when the urge to indulge hits, do the substitute instead.

Return to my knuckles. When the urge hit, I took to squeezing the knuckles rather than cracking them. It was just a small modification of the motion so it was an easy change to make. I still have a problem with that one, but the other 15 (yes 15, per hand) that I used to crack, I leave be.

Last, in “Don’t be  Dopy, be Dopeaminey” I talked about the neurotransmitter dopamine, and its role in planning, pleasure and satisfaction. Just as you can train your cravings, you can train your dopamine response. When you are successful in doing that new thing you wish to habituate, pause, reflect, and take pleasure in it. You’re rewarding the behaviour, and in doing so make it easier (and more likely) to repeat.

As a final note, don’t try to do too much. I’ve written on the topic of New Year’s Revolutions and why most of them fail. One thing I haven’t really explored is N-Y RevolutionS. That “s” at the end is key. When we try to make too many changes at once we’re setting ourselves up for failure. Multitasking is a myth. Do one thing, do it really well, and move on. (Bonus points if you get that reference.)

So then, to sum up.

  • Start small, with something a little easier to do.
  • Choose something enjoyable to do
  • Alternatively, choose something unpleasant to undo
  • Allow yourself to fail, and forgive yourself when you do
  • Modify the urge to something better
  • Take pleasure in your successes, and reward them
  • Do one thing at a time and do it to success before moving on to another

In following this roadmap, you will find it possible to consciously modify your habits. To make yourself a better you. And the best part is, the more you do it, the more you train yourself, the easier it is to succeed. The first habit is hard, the second, a little easier, and so on, until the practice of modifying your habits becomes, well, habitual.