For the most part, our habits are more visible to others than they are to ourselves. They are, by definition, “routine.” We don’t think about them before we do them; we aren’t aware that we are doing them; and too often we don’t notice that we have done them. Others may anticipate them… “This is when she always turns her notepad over and looks with disdain across her desk.” They certainly recognize them… “Here he goes again. One. Two. Three. Beet red and now the fist pounds the table.” But, for the most part it is only afterwards that we think, “I need to stop doing that,” if we even know that we just did it.
The problem is, stopping doing that, whatever that is, can be extremely difficult. Breaking a habit means not only recognizing the habit, it means being conscious of–and alert to–the triggers that set it off. it also means letting go of something that, in its own way, is comfortable to us. We may “like” the habit, even if we recognize that it is not good for us (and/or perhaps for those around us); I know that certainly was true for me during many of the years I was a smoker. Or, we may dislike it. Either way, focusing on breaking old habits is tough, and more than likely will be unsuccessful. It’s hard enough letting go of things when they are in our consciousness; it’s harder yet when time and again they slip by unnoticed.
Don’t focus on breaking old habits. Focus on creating new ones.
New habits are unlikely to be successful, however, if they are seen as ends in themselves. For most people, working out for the sake of getting more exercise or making healthier food choices for the sake of eating better is not sustainable.
New habits are a means to an end, not an end in themselves. They facilitate moving toward something. It may be a new way of relating to ourselves or to others. It may be a new way of attending to our physical, mental, spiritual, or emotional wellbeing. it may be a new job, or a new career. It may be a less chaotic and cluttered home or life. New habits are ways of facilitating the achievement of outcomes that are important to us.
As has often been stated in past posts, it is important to begin by getting clear about where you are going and what life will be like when you get there. Once you have established that clarity you can begin to identify the old habits that will get in your way and the new ones that will facilitate your progress.
Now it’s time to focus on creating those new habits. Be attentive to the triggers. Recruit others to call it to your attention when the triggers bring back the old habits. Know that it will take time, and the old habits will continue to show themselves along the way; that is an inevitable part of the change process. When I quite smoking, I realized how present cigarettes had been in my adult life. The physiology of quitting happened relatively quickly; the psychology of quitting took much longer. Again and again, I would find myself reaching for that pack, find it absent, and discover that here was yet another situation that I would have to learn how to address differently; here was another new habit I would need to develop. I needed to learn to have a cup of coffee without a cigarette, to get off the elevator without lighting up, to drive to work with both hands on the wheel. Six months after I quit smoking, I was at the airport for the first time without a pack of cigarettes. When I was asked whether I wanted a non-smoking or smoking seat on the plane (this was a long time ago), my automatic response was “smoking.” For me, flying in the non-smoking section of the plane was the final step in developing a healthier, tobacco-free relationship with my body. I had failed many times before to break the old habit of smoking. I had succeeded this time in positively changing the way I related to myself physically, and developed several new habits along the way.
What is your experience in breaking old habits, and in creating new ones? What has–and hasn’t–worked for you? Comment below.