The word “habit” doesn’t really begin to cover how difficult it can be to change. That word makes it sound easy, like it’s just a matter of choosing not to do something negative in order to stop doing it. Which is sort of true. It is a matter of choosing not to do that negative action. Simple! But not easy.
When we have ingrained habits, such as going to the drive-thru every day on the way to work for a breakfast sandwich and hashbrowns or ordering pizza for movie night every Saturday, or drinking beer and watching the game on Sunday, our life seems somehow incomplete if we take that action away. An Asian man once told me that if he hasn’t eaten rice he feels as if he hasn’t eaten, no matter how much food is in his belly. Rice was so much an ingrained part of his meal that it didn’t even seem like a meal if he didn’t have it.
So when we know our habits are negative and want to get rid of them, how do we do it?
The first and most important step is to decide to stop. And by that I don’t mean tell yourself you should stop. We all tell ourselves we should stop our bad habits, but that doesn’t mean we do. You have to make the clear and firm decision that you are not going to do it anymore. Think of the negative consequences of continuing with this habit can help make it easier to see the decision through.
Let’s say you’ve decided you want to stop eating junk food. You are in the habit of eating junk food regularly — it’s a comforting and easy part of your life. You eat it because you associate it with positives. You like the taste. It’s easy and convenient. It’s inexpensive. You need to begin associating it with negatives: The fats, salts and sugars in these foods are making you overweight. They are contributing to your bad health, possibly leading to diabetes, metabolic syndrome, heart disease, stroke and even impotence. Start consciously making these negative associations when you think of eating these foods. Picture every bite becoming a mass of fat cells. Picture it clogging your arteries. You need to feel the pain of your actions that outweighs the pleasure.
When you’re hungry and you would normally have gone to a fast-food place for a burger and fries, envision what that food is doing to you. Find your own personal pain point. Is it the fat on your stomach and hips that make you not want to look at yourself in the mirror, or even be naked with your husband? Is it that you are starting to experience signs of erectile dysfunction? (Yes, anything that causes cardiovascular disease could also cause ED.) Is it that you’ve lost relatives to diabetes and you understand that you are bringing that upon yourself? Mentally associate that negativity with the junk food. The negative association has to be something that you connect with emotionally.
When you make the decision to stop a negative habit, you may immediately feel a sense of loss. That’s understandable. You’re removing something from your life that, for whatever reason, you have deemed an important part of that life. To help with this sense of loss and to make it easier to give up this negative habit, replace it with a positive habit. It will not take long before the positive habit becomes as ingrained as the negative habit was.
If your habit is eating snacks while you watch your favorite TV shows, then get in the habit of exercising while you watch those shows. This could mean watching them at the gym while you are on the treadmill, for example, or it could mean exercising at your home — you can buy a treadmill, exercise bike or elliptical, you could use a mini trampoline, or you could use weights. The bonus is that it’s easier to accomplish your workouts, especially when you’re just beginning, when you have something else to keep your mind occupied.
If your habit is eating high-calorie foods to get you through the afternoon slump, then try taking a break and going for a short walk. If you can get outside, that’s the best, but even if you go for a walk around your office building that will help revitalize you — without the extra empty calories. And make sure to have a healthy snack at the same time.
Breaking a bad habit is never easy, but you can make it a lot easier by making negative mental associations and by replacing bad habits with good. Before you know it, you won’t have that bad habit anymore, and you’ll feel empty if you miss your workout or walk, instead!