Alice: Would you tell me, please, which way I ought to go from here?
The Cheshire Cat: That depends a good deal on where you want to go.
Learning how to free yourself from bad habits starts with a simple realization – that bad habits drain your productivity and well-being.
Of course, bad habits are not all created equal: over-eating can be terribly unhealthy and hamper productivity, procrastination stifles achievement, and smoking just kills you : )
They also often go hand-in hand. The little ‘pleasures’ of so many onion ringy things and cheesey whatsits amount to little more than procrastination (usually), an uneasy tummy and weight gain (almost always).
But here is the shocker – you are the major cause of your own lousy habits.
Unless you have an atypical metabolism, you can’t eat whatever you want and lose weight.
Even diets have a shelf life – but you CAN learn to enjoy healthy foods. Really. How can we be sure? Because just think about it: a) we didnt have Pringles until recently and b) do you think the most exclusive restaurants in the world serve junk? No. Why? Because real, healthy food tastes the best!!
And vegetables are not especially expensive – so you can throw that out the window too!
Change Your Brain, Feed your Mind
Change is not an event, but a process. Willpower alone won’t usually do it.
First, acknowledge your bad habits. Write them down. The typical process is like this but since you are reading this, you are maybe between 2 and 3.
For most people, the process of breaking a bad habit is not a straight path that takes them from one stage to the next. Successful self- changers usually follow a path that’s more like a spiral: They move forward, go back to a previous stage, and move on to the next level of commitment one or more times before breaking the habit for good.
Pretty much the way dieters are accustomed to moving.
Whatever your bad habit is, you may have tried to break it many times, too. This time will be different, because you’ll understand that breaking your habit is a process, not an event. You will have the knowledge and the confidence to succeed this time.
Can you really change? Can you really free yourself from bad habits? Of course. But like Alice, to reach your goal you need to know where you want to go. For many people, that is the hardest part.
We would be remiss if we did not note that mindfulness can help immensely. See here for a discussion on mindfulness and how to set and achieve your goals.
STAGE 1: Denial is Destructive
Little by little, negativity eats away at a person’s health and eliminates the possibility for happiness. Even if someone close to you is a complainer, a criticizer, or a negative thinker, your own well-being is compromised.
Complaining about things beyond our direct control is one of the most destructive habits. Yes, it’s also one of the most common things that people do. We complain about the weather; we talk about whoever is the focus of the latest celebrity scandal; we blame the government for everything that’s wrong.
Complaining about things we can’t control is a very effective way to avoid facing up to
things that we can do something about. It also gets you on the fast track to resentful bitterness.
And nobody wants that!
Stage 2, Awareness: A Bird in a Cage
Many people get stuck in this stage. They spend years telling themselves that they are going to change “one day.”
There is a certain comfort in believing that you can’t avoid the path you are following, even though they know where it leads in the end. You can lock yourself into a mindset that says, “I know I eat too much, but what can I do about it?”
As soon you break out of this cage, you will of course have to admit to yourself that you had the power to do it all along!
And this is the danger of focusing on the past. When all you can see is what lies behind, you aren’t able to understand that new opportunities present themselves as soon as you make the decision to walk in a different direction.
Blaming ourselves for things that went wrong in the past is the most self- destructive habit of all. It’s easy for our families and friends to see when a habit like overeating, or overspending is destroying our lives.
And you have plenty of company, because we ALL have bad habits; only some don’t light up on the radar screen: the gossiper, the preener, the liar: are these habits or personal characteristics or both?
A person’s capacity to shift her thoughts from the past to the present is the key to moving from stage 2 to stage 3. You can’t make the decision to change as long as you’re still focused on the past.
Stage 3: Let the Changes Begin!
One of the keys to successful self-change is to develop your own plan. The critical element in any program is the confidence of the person who is using it. If you believe the program will work, you have a better chance of making it work.
And the greatest motivator is a vision of what your life will be like when you break your bad habit. That is so important: you need to imagine your new self and your new life.
Being prepared for change means that you set goals for yourself. Make a list of the benefits of changing. How does each of these benefits help you achieve your goals in life? See here for more on how to set and achieve your goals.
A lifestyle change isn’t something that happens overnight. It happens one day at a time, as soon as you begin to focus on the solution instead of the problem. The process of total lifestyle change starts when you begin to think more about the present than the past.
Start to Exercise?
Thirty minutes of aerobic exercise is enough to release endorphins into the brain.
Endorphins are chemical substances responsible for the sensation of peace, well- being, and exhilaration commonly experienced by people who exercise regularly.
If you make a commitment to exercise for just 90 minutes a week,for example, it will help you replace your self- destructive habits with healthy new habits. Brisk walking, swimming, or an exercise class will do the trick. Or see this – with video!
You can’t exercise away all the temptations to go back to your old habit, of course. You
need a plan that works 24/7. And you can’t ‘reward’ yourself by popping open a family bag of potato chips – it does not work that way! Exercise does not even lose you much weight, contrary to popular belief.
You are the only person who can know what will work for you. Again, mindfulness will help.
Beware of Procrastination
“You cannot escape the responsibility of tomorrow by evading it today.” A. Lincoln
The biggest danger in this stage is procrastination – especially if THAT is one of your bad habits!
Try these strategies at the first sign that you’re trying to put off your commitment:
- Set achievable goals. Trying to pay off your credit card next month will only set you up for failure. Paying off the credit card in six months or one year gives you a much greater expectation of success.
- Get started. Do something. Sign up for an exercise class or go for a ride on your bike. Activity is the best antidote for procrastination.
- Don’t beat yourself up if you’re not perfect all the time. It’s not about perfection– it’s about making progress one step at a time.
Knowing yourself is the real key to successful planning. What are the real reasons for your habit? What are the real causes of your procrastination? Your greatest enemy at this stage is fear of failure.
That’s normal. Don’t let it bother you. Just set a date and stick to it.
Be sure to set a date that’s in the near future—two weeks from today, not two months from today. If you give yourself too much time, you’ll be more likely to procrastinate.
Stage 4: March!
The goal in this stage is to change your way of thinking. You do this by:
- Learning how to relax
- Starting an exercise program or whatever works for you
- Learning effective “countering” techniques—thoughts and actions that keep you from falling into your old patterns
”Countering” is one of the most effective techniques in the cycle of self-change. It’s easier to
promote the new behavior than to get rid of the old one. Trying too hard to break a habit is
usually a recipe for failure. As long as you’re focused on trying to break the old habit, you’re like a soldier who is fighting with one hand tied behind his back.
Focusing on your new behavior is like freeing the hand tied behind your back. Suddenly you
have more power to bring about the change you desire. People who break bad habits frequently experience frustration in the early stages, when they’re trying as hard as they can to eliminate the old behavior.
In a very real sense, success comes when you stop trying. By focusing on your new lifestyle, you stop trying to break the old habit; almost without being aware of what’s happening, you move to the next stage as the new behavior replaces the old one.
When your preparation is good, you should be able to move through the action stage very quickly. If you have laid the proper foundation, your transition from stage 4 to stage 5 will be a smooth one.
You need a strategy to handle the daily temptations that arise in this stage. One of the secrets to success is to stay active.
Our bodies are designed for activity. Ancient hunters lived on a diet of red meats that were high in bad cholesterol and triglycerides, the two most important factors in high blood pressure and heart disease. Yet anthropologists have discovered that members of ancient hunting tribes did not suffer from these diseases, due to the fact that they led such active lifestyles.
We think our body is telling us to kick back and relax with a box of doughnuts when in reality our body is trying to tell us to move.
You should be convinced anyway of the crucial role of exercise in your total lifestyle change. But that may already be a part of your routine; the question is, how do you fight temptation when you can’t or don’t exercise?
The answer is…. Well, we keep telling you this, mindfulness.
It also may be important to reward yourself during this stage. Make contracts that reward you for fulfilling your part of the agreement. Write it all down.
Use your imagination. Whatever you’re trying to free yourself from, rewarding yourself is a powerful motivator.
Stage 5, Winning the Battle – and Why New Year Resolutions Usually Fail
In this stage, the key is to replace your bad habit with a new lifestyle – and make it fun!
Promoting new habits is crucial to your success. If you only remove the old habit, you’re condemned to a lifetime of fighting off the urge to go back.
In this stage you must struggle to prevent a ”relapse”.
Dieters who regain more weight than they lost by following the latest fad are victims of programs that ignore the need for a total lifestyle change. In the end, of course, they are victims of their own wishful thinking. They learn the hard way that lasting change cannot be made without serious effort on their part.
Deep change must be associated with a new way of life. Research shows that a diet is successful when it is combined with eating healthier foods and exercising. Most of us don’t need to see research findings to believe this: We see the proof every day in our own lives and in the lives of people who are close to us.
The first danger sign for a dieter usually isn’t overeating, but weakening her commitment to a new lifestyle.
Social pressures are still dangerous in stage 4. That’s why holidays are the most difficult times to start a diet. Setting a target date that coincides with the Christmas season is foolish. It makes more sense to start your diet after the New Year.
New Year’s resolutions don’t fail because they’re made on the New Year; they fail because people jump into them without having progressed through the previous stages.
Most people make New Year’s resolutions after waking up with a hangover—or with five extra pounds in their midsection—on the morning of January 1. They haven’t done the necessary preparation to have a chance to be successful. It’s no wonder that so many people go back to their old behavior before the month of January is over.
When you ”relapse”, learn from it and move on. This is part of the spiral that most people go through before they exit the cycle forever. You don’t have to start over when you slip up. A lot of people fall out of the cycle completely by beating themselves up with feelings of guilt after a lapse.
So remember: change your mind first: the rest can be a lot easier than you think