Habit Change Reconsidered

Habits are so important, and so misunderstood. We talk about them as good and bad, but for the most part, they simply are. One of my professors occasionally remarks that about 80% of what we do is habit. Habits organize us. They help us be more efficient, and they make it easier to be in the world. We have habits of thought and of action. You know that new job feeling – the one where you’re in a new setting, learning lots of new skills, and it requires a lot of thought, and you go home exhausted? But then you get into the swing of things. You develop habits. Habits are, in fact, the reason we’re not mentally exhausted all the time. On the whole, our ability to develop habits and routines is tremendously helpful. But a few of mine, instead of helping me, are getting in my way. My habits of staying up too late and eating an afternoon snack comprised of a candy bar or another equally processed food, for example, are ones that I’ve been trying to change. But I think maybe all of the conventional wisdom on habit change (make them slowly, one at a time, and wait at least a month before trying to change another) might be….how shall I put this delicately? Nonsense. A bunch of hooey.

Or maybe it’s evidence based, and best practice. Either way, it didn’t work for me. Almost all of the habit changes I made (eating a real dinner every night, going to bed at a reasonable hour, exercise) lasted for a few months and then petered out. Maybe I’m not a baby steps kind of girl. So because I was starting to feel like a bullshitter, blogging about habit change without actually successfully maintaining any of it, I decided to try a different approach: Change. Everything. At once.

Well, maybe not everything. But some big things. A total life makeover.

I decided to start sleeping at least nine hours a night (seems to be my threshold for “enough”), cutting out the vast majority of processed foods, and giving up my very favorite (and last remaining) bad habit. A habit I’ve maintained since high school. What habit, you might be wondering? (Well, most of you. My mom has already figured it out, because she’s been gently badgering me to give this one up since my Romania days). Let’s play a guessing game. What do these photos (from college, my wedding, travels abroad, and graduate school, respectively) have in common?

this one’s slightly different…but it fits with the theme. Wondering about the face that I’m making? We were in Budapest and rode the subway with the wrong tickets – an honest mistake for which we got fined – we took a picture with the statue to commemorate what was certainly a learning experience (what we learned was that the Budapest transit enforcers aren’t all helpful and understanding folks!)

Ah, I think you’ve guessed it. I’ve got a major diet soda addiction. Not just any diet soda, mind you. Diet Coke, preferably in a can (except in Budapest, apparently). It’s maybe the one thing I have in common with former president George W. Bush. Yet another reason to give it up :) I don’t know whether any of the speculation about aspartame’s potential risks is true or not. Probably overblown. But Diet Coke is quite acidic, and since I drank it to the exclusion of most other beverages – especially those containing calcium, like milk – I’m pretty sure it was bad for my bones and teeth at the very least. And I like my teeth. I’d prefer to keep them, enamel and all. So adios, diet soda. I decided to go cold turkey, while also limiting my coffee intake to one cup a day, and switching from caffeinated to herbal tea…which was maybe a good thing, because every time I think about cheating I remember the horrendous caffeine withdrawal (I think I was also craving the aspartame and the bubbles from diet soda), and I know it’s not worth it. I’ve had a couple of diet cokes since I quit, but nothing compared to my 1-to-2-can-a-day (or more) previous habit. And I cut them out completely for the first few weeks to make sure I had kicked the habit. I think I can allow myself one every now and then from here on out without relapsing, but maybe not – if I can’t, I’m going to write them off forever. You would think I was kidding, talking about this like an addiction, but I’m pretty sure that’s what it was, for well over 15 years. In addition to not being great for me, it was bad for the planet – think how many empty aluminum cans and plastic bottles I generated with this habit. So I’d say this was a healthier, more minimalist, more sustainable change that I made, and I feel great!

So no more baby steps. I’m going to do this habit change thing to excess, until it sticks. Maybe it’s easier in some ways to make and maintain a radical change…at least for me. All of these changes seem to fit together, so I think it makes sense to implement them at the same time.

What about you? What have you found to be the most effective way to change a habit?

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