Life is made up of many, many habits. Even if you are spontaneous, there is a very high likelihood that you also have many habits that you might not even be aware of. Habits make life a little easier. They are things we do automatically and we don’t really have to think about them which can be great, or not so great.
For example, there are daily habits like brushing your teeth, or for some people having the same coffee or breakfast at the same or similar time each day, how you get into the car, the way you get to work each day, what you do to relax, which clothes you put on first, and even the times of day you do each of these things. Everyone has habits. They can be big routines and rituals or small, tiny things you do regularly. Either way, habits are the building blocks in our day to day lives.
The mind encourages us to create habits because it’s taking in so much data every second of every day, that the only way that it can process some of that data, or make it easier for the conscious mind to handle it, is by creating many, many unconscious or automatic behaviours, often referred to as habits.
The thing about habits is that your mind will want to create habits for you as often as possible, whether those habits work for you or not. So that means that even though your mind is trying to be efficient and helpful, sometimes you might end up doing a habit that isn’t really working for you.
Are your habits working for you or against you?
We all have habits, but there are times that these habits can constrict you from moving forward in your life, holding you back. They can keep you in your comfort zone, where you feel safe and comfortable. Every now and then, someone I meet says that they enjoy being uncomfortable, although usually when asked if they buy clothes because it’s more comfortable to wear clothing than walk around naked, most people will say they buy clothes because they are comfortable! Just like your mind is geared towards creating habits, it also tends towards wanting comfortability. Habits are comfortable to the mind, whether they are serving us or not.
Am I Moving or Stuck?
We are comfort seeking beings. We enjoy a comfy bed, snuggly rug, a cosy sweater or a hug. We have phones, laptops, TV, cars, clothes, food and apps to make things more convenient for us, more comfortable. Many people don’t even need to leave their house to get takeaway food anymore, it can be delivered right to your door. For many people, living is getting more and more convenient and therefore encouraging more and more comfort. Being comfortable can feel great, but staying in one place for too long can also create a feeling of stagnation or like being stuck in a rut.
How bad habits start
Sometimes it begins with a cheeky doughnut, a chocolate or food delivery. It’s justified because it’s been a bad day, you’re exhausted, or working late at the office. Maybe you go to the gym or do some form of exercise regularly but ‘just this once’ you skip it because there’s no time. Or you put off doing that work you know you should, or going to an interview because of something more fun, like a date or drinks with friends. Whatever it is, you somehow find a reason that seems to make sense at the time. It can make sense because of other things that are happening around you at that moment. But how often does it only happen once? Some times, “just this once” is actually already the third time, maybe the fourth. Or even more.
Because habits can encourage comfortability or convenience, they are often also avoiding another uncomfortability of some sort. When you’re under pressure, it can be uncomfortable staying back late, saying no to a friend, eating healthy, finding a way to make time for your partner or the gym or friends. When you do something that avoids being uncomfortable once, choosing convenience or comfortability instead, many people then make a pattern of that behaviour which becomes a habit. One bad habit builds on the next and the next and the next.
Habits Build Over Time…
You might not see the problem with the decision you make in that moment because what often happens is that a habit builds up over time. One dessert here and there may not make a big difference that week or month, but it could trigger a desire for more sweet food and a chocolate later. Whether it’s after work, or using sweet or unhealthy foods to cover uncomfortable emotions or to bring about other, more enjoyable emotions. When I used to be bored, overwhelmed, sad, lonely or frustrated (just to name a few), I would use food like chocolate, doughnuts, cookies, or fried foods to change my emotions.
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In the moment, I didn’t realise I was doing that. Over the years, when my body weight had doubled and then tripled, I finally realised that I was using food to change my emotions. Some people call this emotional eating. I now say it was a bad habit. I also had created a habit of feeling sad, of not exercising, of watching TV instead of going out and meeting people, of working too much so I had an excuse not to be social, of saying yes to everyone so I didn’t feel bored or lonely. There are many different versions of bad habits that can build up without you noticing at first.
When it started, it felt like a small and flexible habit, but sooner or later, once a person has fully adapted to that habit, it builds massive barriers in their thinking. As some types of habits build up, it can feel like being stuck in a rut because other ideas, like choosing a different habit, are sometimes disregarded or seen as too difficult. You might come up with reasons like ‘they won’t make a difference’ or simply think that they’re not familiar to you, or you feel that venturing into the unknown is much too uncomfortable for you.
How often do you know, in the back of your mind that you have to break free, that this habit is not useful, that it’s taking you further from where you want to be rather than closer? Can you see any patterns forming in your life that are not useful?
The tipping point to changing habits
Eventually the time comes when you really have to change something and create a new habit because there’s no other way to do it. Sooner or later you realise that you are stuck in a rut where there is no more room to grow and you have to expand. When that happens, you know that it is time to break free from that comfort zone that your habits have helped you to maintain. Sure, they were very helpful in the past but things change and as they change, it is impossible for us not to change as well. So we may as well embrace it.
Many people may be bored or feel stagnant, and unlike you they don’t yet realise that they are the ones who are creating the habits themselves. We each make choices, and sometimes we are aware of the choices we make in the moment. Sometimes small choices add up over time and we notice when we look back from where we are, that we could have chosen differently.
Choosing convenience and comfort isn’t always a bad thing though. I like to have my groceries delivered and that saves me a lot of time and energy each week and helps me stick to my healthy eating habits. It’s very convenient, but more often than not, choosing comfort and convenience can lead you down a problematic path, especially if you’re not aware of your choices.
For some people, it’s more comfortable and convenient for them to please others, try to be perfect, take on too much or to avoid mistakes and not take on anything that might seem risky or scary. This can end up with people feeling overwhelmed, stuck in obligations they’ve agreed to, feeling less worthy as a person or simply missing out on genuine relationships, or the fun, adventures and excitement that life has to offer.
Why Am I Avoiding Change?
Habits are usually fulfilling an emotional need at some level, whether it’s a feeling of safety, security, comfort, belonging, happiness, satisfaction and so on. To change a habit, you may want to look a little beyond the ‘behaviour of the habit’, to what is the emotional need that’s being fulfilled. Every emotional need can be fulfilled in a healthy and not so healthy way.
Fulfilling boredom in a healthy way, may be finding something fun and active to do like reading a book, calling a friend, going for a walk, playing with your dog etc. An unhealthy way to fulfil boredom may be scrolling facebook or youtube for hours, distracting yourself with food, playing video games for hours or avoiding doing a project or task. When changing a habit, consider if it is a healthy habit that helps you to grow, thrive and move in the direction of who or what you truly desire, or is it keeping you stuck, feeling unhealthy keeping you where you are?
Start small and build on successes
Start with one habit. Just one at a time! Pick a habit that you don’t think is working for you and find a healthier alternative that can possibly bring you a similar feeling or emotion. It might not feel like it straight away but you can build the positive emotion around a new behaviour.
I used to hate running, and when I first started, I was encouraged to ‘bouncy walk’ and take it slow. I would do it for 10 min a day even when I really didn’t want to. The most important part was in my celebration! I enjoyed that bit. After each run, no matter what, I celebrated as big as I could. I’d ‘bouncy walk’ every morning for 10min for 6 months and celebrated every time. To really celebrate, if you’re going to do it right, you’ve got to feel the emotion and the energy in your body. You know that awesome, fun feeling? I would jump around with my hands up clapping and cheering.
It felt odd sometimes to only do a slow run for 10 minutes a day, but the habit developed, and 7 years later I’m still running every day and get to actually enjoy it. I replaced an old habit of not exercising with a new healthier habit of getting up and running every day.
Maybe for you it’s not running, but perhaps drinking water, smiling at people you walk past, saying hello to the person making your tea or coffee, reading a few pages of a personal growth book before bed instead of falling asleep in front of netflix. Whatever it is. Start with one thing. Celebrate. And keep building on your successes. You got this!