how to develop good habits

A woman walked up to a little old man rocking in a chair on his porch.
“I couldn’t help noticing how happy you look,” she said. “What’s your secret for a long happy life?”
“I smoke three packs of cigarettes a day,” he said. “I also drink a case of whiskey a week, eat fatty foods, and never exercise.”
“That’s amazing,” the woman said. “How old are you?’
“Twenty-six,” he said.

For the sake of argument, let’s say that habits fall into two general categories: good habits and bad habits. A good habit is flossing every day. A bad habit is smoking. Some habits might fall somewhere in between, or depend on frequency. Flossing every day is a good habit. Flossing once per month isn’t a bad habit, exactly, but it’s not – strictly speaking – a good habit either. Eating a huge overcooked steak once a year is not a terribly bad habit. Eating one for breakfast every day is.

But let’s stick with good habits and bad habits, because most people can tell the difference and don’t need more distinction than that. Most of them can then be thrown into another three categories:

  1. habits you should break – debt, looking down on things, negativism
  2. habits you should take – wake up early, play outside, etc from when you were a kid
  3. habits you should make – positivity, frugality, love

We’ll call that break, take and make.

In a sense, it is often a lot easier to identify a negative habit than a positive one. Overeating or smoking or playing too much Halo is usually a fairly easy pattern to spot. However, the habits that you need to break are often either very pleasurable (overeating for example), or arise from addiction (smoking), or are based on deeply ingrained behaviors (negative thinking). So how do you go about modifying bad habits? What are the methods for eliminating them from your life?

  • Stop. Sometimes a bad habit just needs to cease. If you smoke, stop – get some nicotine gum instead. If you watch 6 hours of TV per day, disconnect your cable. If you gossip, turn the subject to sports or politics or movies. This method is hard, and frankly almost never works – but sometimes it’s worth a shot.
  • Modify. If you drink Coke, try switching to diet Coke, or diet Sprite, or ginger ale, or seltzericon – or cycle through them in that order. You do not have to immediately stop a habit. Take baby steps. If you don’t exercise, don’t imagine that you will run a marathon the week after you start taking a 20-minute walk; but DO imagine that you’ll take a 25 minute walk the next week, then a 45 minute walk, then a 20 minute jog and then – who knows? That marathon might not be so far away after all!
  • Inhibit. In another post I wrote about using a rubber band to help stop negative thoughts. You can use this extremely simple tool very effectively. The purpose is not to injure you or create a fear of an action, but merely to jolt your awareness. I think this is probably the easiest yet almost the most effective way to halt any bad habit. It is one of those exceptionally simple methods that most people scoff at until they try it. Give it a shot.
  • Journal. I have plenty of bad habits, but I have seldom seen one that can withstand a brutally honest journal. If your habit to break is sweets, keep an extremely detailed sweets journal. When, where, what, how many calories, why you ate it (sad? bored?) and almost inevitably you’ll notice a decrease. Writing things down will help solidify the habit in your mind, and make you think twice before engaging in it, knowing you’ll have to record that incident in your journal.

When you were a child, you woke up full of energy and excitement on Saturdays. The cartoons were on, it was the day you were allowed to eat Lucky Charms instead of something good for you, and you didn’t have to go to school. You didn’t know it at the time, but waking up early was a good habit. It kept you from wasting half the day sleeping, making it harder to fall asleep Saturday night. It meant that on your weekends you accomplished “maximum fun” and really squeezed as much into the day as you could. Where did that habit go? Some of it left because you got older… because work beat you down … because you just NEED that sleep. You don’t have to leave this good habit behind you in childhood, though. Reach back into your past and take back these good habits. Take back the habits of playtime, of reading, of avoiding things that didn’t directly contribute to your health and happiness. These are habits which are just day-to-day simple tasks that improve the quality of your life. Examples could include:

  • Making time for play
  • Learning about things because you’re curious
  • Questioning “the way it’s always been done”
  • Never learning to sit still

Here are the first steps to doing this:

  • Identify those habits:
  • Remember how they felt
  • Ask yourself if there’s any reason you couldn’t still do that
  • With a nod to Prince: act your shoe size, not your age

If you have seen The Secret, or read any similar self-help book, you’ll realize that the power of positive thinking is a hot topic right now. It has been a hot topic for hundreds of years, in fact, and there’s a reason for it. It works. Having a mental habit like positive thinking is a snowball habit. The more you do it, the more powerful it becomes and makes it easier and easier to maintain as a habit. There are other key “make” habits like this:

  • Eating a healthy, natural diet
  • Spending time with family and friends by actually being there; no Blackberries, no agendas, and no pressure
  • Making time for meditation
  • Daydreaming
  • Being kind

So how do you make these habits? I’ll refer back again to The Secret, but it could just as easily come from the works of Benjamin Franklin or any self-help individual in-between. You can control your thoughts. There is very little else in this world that you can control the way you can control your thoughts. Use that power to your advantage. Tell your mind “this is a habit, this will be a ritual and we will keep it.” Imagine you have already been doing this habit for years. Imagine that it has made you happier, more fit, richer, calmer – whatever it is that you want. You really have to visualize it, write it down, draw it or otherwise make it a real image in your mind. You will be amazed at how quickly your mind adapts to a “new reality” once you order it to. A habit is not a set of chains or a gun pointed at your head. It is 100% the result of your mind, so only you – as the person in control – can change your mind and therefore the habit.

10 Replies to “how to develop good habits”

  1. I love the story/anecdote at the top – really great:) These are all good points. I can attest to the power of keeping a journal on whatever it is you’re trying to change. It starts another habit – the meta-cognition of your other habits.

  2. That is a great story… LOL!! You bring up a lot of great points on how to change habits. I too can attest to keeping a journal… I used this technique to lose weight and it was the only way that I could actually keep myself accountable. I wanted to also mention Rev. Dr. Sheldon E. Williams’ latest book titled, “Principled Centered Living,” which has been extremely helpful in teaching me healthy habits and also helped me stay on track. I really loved how it taught me how to protect myself from common pitfalls and outside pressures.

  3. My father was very fond of this quote from Lord Byron, at the very end of “The Prisoner of Chillon”:

    My very chains and I grew friends,
    So much a long communion tends
    To make us what we are:—even I
    Regain’d my freedom with a sigh.

    Even the things we most abhor become such “friends” that we find it very difficult to break free. It’s always a struggle.

  4. The concept of your 3 things you should do with habits are very solid. Make, Take and Break, not in that order of course. But solid none the less

  5. I have heard that you can’t break a habit, you have to replace a habit. Do you think that is true?

    1. @Katie: I’m not sure, to be honest. I’d think that it is possible to break a habit without replacing it, but it probably depends on the habit. I quit drinking soda without truly replacing that habit, for example. I do drink some seltzer from time to time, but not to the level I’d call it a habit. I drank 6-8 sodas a day, so having one or two glasses of club soda a day – and not even every day – probably doesn’t qualify.

      But replacing a habit with a habit (a better one, presumably) is probably a good idea.

  6. Thanks for the post! I think you laid things out very well. I especially like the journal idea. My biggest issue with journaling is that I often start and stop; and worse, each time I usually restart using different media (paper, notepad, private blog, etc.). I’m constantly torn between the visceral feel of handwriting my thoughts on paper, and the superior data-gathering and manipulation of an electronic format.

    Recently I’ve been gathering data by hand in my daily planner, and then inputting it into a spreadsheet once a week, and it’s probably my most successful system so far in terms of tracking habits. However, even though I can create neat graphs and visualize trends, I have yet to really feel compelled to change my habits based on the data. I think what’s missing is that subjective, emotional component (something like the “why you ate the sweets” data you describe above) to link what I record to what I’m trying to achieve.

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  8. I am interested in how can I be best to run my leadership, I read books by John Maxwell and without doubt one of my favorite authors, I feel very motivated and challenged as a woman to assume a better position in my job, my house and my relationships. I have only one problem, I don’t have the habit of reading, it seems that seasons in the year I read a couple books on a daily and continuous, but then I ended with the habit. To my, reading is key, but it seems that way too busy in my day and I am so tired that I do not have the strength to read complete books and barely reached to read a few paragraphs monthly. What would be a practical advice for me?

    can someone help me with my question?

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