Breaking Bad Habits

We are what we repeatedly do

Aristotle taught, "We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act, but a habit." Good habits are our best friends. Because we perform them unconsciously, they free us to concentrate on other useful endeavors. On the other hand, the opposite is true for bad habits. They encumber us, enslave us, and ensnare us, preventing us from moving forward in our lives. That’s why Nathaniel Emmons wrote, "Habit is either the best of servants or the worst of masters." The paradox is, we make our habits, and then they turn around and make us.

Habits form the engine beneath the hood of our car. Good habits move us forward; bad habits set the car in reverse. Now and then we should look out the window to see which way we’re driving. Does it make any sense to keep going if we’re driving the wrong way? Those who want to improve their lives will replace their bad habits with good ones. How do we do so? We can make breaking a bad habit easier by following these five preliminary steps:

1. Become aware of your bad habits. Since you perform them automatically, or without thinking, you’ll first have to bring them into your consciousness before you can change them.

2. Monitor the seriousness of your bad habit. Let’s say I have the bad habit of watching too much TV. Watching TV is not intrinsically bad, but if I find household and other chores are being neglected, I have a right to suspect a bad habit has its grip on me. At the moment, I have the vague feeling that I’m spending too much time before this mesmerizing, modern invention. But how much time is "too" much? I decide to check by monitoring my behaviour and discover I average 2 1/2 hours a day. But to better appreciate the impact of this bad habit, I do some calculations and realize that I waste 17 1/2 hours a week, almost three days a month, or more than one month a year. More than one month a year? Wow, I didn’t realize I was wasting so much time! Now that I understand the gravity of the situation, I’m ready to move on to the next step.

3. Examine the motivation. That is, ask myself, "Why do I watch so much TV?" Isn’t it to escape, to numb the pain? Escape from what? Perhaps escape from thinking about some of the chores I should be doing. Numb the pain of what? Perhaps the pain of guilt, regret, and shame for not doing some of those important chores. Oddly enough, if I do the chores, I won’t experience the pain and therefore won’t have the need to watch TV! Not only that, but as I do the chores, I will learn that the pleasure of accomplishment exceeds that of the pleasure of watching TV.

4. Examine the consequences.
What am I losing by watching too much TV? It’s time to move away from the generality of "chores" to the specifics. As I pause and think about what needs to be done, a couple of items immediately come to mind. Shouldn’t I be caulking the windows before the snow begins? And what about the front door that lets in too much cold air during the winter. If I seal it properly, I will reduce my heating costs. Now that I clearly see what’s at stake I am motivated to carry out some home-improvement, as well as self-improvement.

5. Decision time! Now that I’ve gathered the facts, it’s time to unleash the power of choice and decide to act. Let’s pin it down. Which project will I work on first? What steps are involved? What do I need? How will I begin? Hey, this is easier than I thought; let’s start now!

How to change habits

I certainly have benefited in my example by following the five steps. But it’s a temporary gain. What I need to do now is form new habits. Replace bad ones with good ones. And I develop good habits in the same manner that I’ve already developed bad ones; mainly, by repetition. What is it that I will repeat? It’s a personal choice; in my case, I will replace the 2 1/2 hours of TV time with a one-hour workout at the health club, 30 minutes to and fro travel time, and one hour to work on a task that needs to be done.

To lessen my fear of getting sucked into an endless commitment to exerting EFFORT, I make a promise to myself that I will stick to my new schedule for only 30 days. After faithfully following my new regimen for a month, if I no longer feel like continuing it, I’m free to quit. Offering myself this escape clause, reduces the pressure of taking on this new commitment. After all, I can always quit in 30 days.

But guess what? I won’t quit! Why? Because it takes 30 days to develop a new habit, and by then, my daily routine would have become habitual. That’s why a certain cigarette manufacturer used to advertise, "Take our 30-day test." Because they knew that if you smoked their brand for 30 days, you would develop a new habit and become loyal to their brand. There is, however, a catch to this one month plan. And that is, you must faithfully carry out your new program without skipping a day.

If you skip a day, you haven’t given the program a chance to work, so you have to make a decision at that point. Do I want to return to the rut I’m in, or am I sincere about wishing to change for the better? If I choose to improve myself, I will have no choice but to repeat the program from day one and carry it out for 30 consecutive days. You’ve been forewarned, so make your job easy and don’t skip a day!

By the way, you should know that, if you’re not already doing so, there is no finer habit to develop than an exercise plan. Studies have shown that those who exercise regularly develop self-discipline and self-confidence that spills over in all other areas of life. So, it’s not only about good health, but it’s about following a path that leads to endless self-improvement.

What exercise should you consider? Well, here are comments from two comics to consider. First, Fred Allen had this to say, "I like long walks, especially when they are taken by people who annoy me." And Erma Bombeck offered the following quip, "The only reason I would take up jogging is so that I could hear heaving breathing again."

Sorry for sidetracking. Now to get serious again. Every outcome has a cause. So, a powerful secret of success is to develop the habits that will cause the outcomes (goals) we wish to reach. If we do so, our success is assured. Or, as Charles J. Givens wrote, "Achieve success in any area of life by identifying the optimum strategies and repeating them until they become habits."

© Chuck Gallozzi
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