How to start a new habit (and break a bad one)

by admin on July 10, 2010

One of my fascinations as a yoga teacher is when I see a new student show up for class for the first time and then see the student come back again. And again. And again. A student for whom yoga was not part of his or her life slowly begins to integrate this wonderful practice of health and wellness into his or her daily routine. It’s a great validation of the flexibility of the human psyche to take on new things and stay open to new ideas and challenges.

But at the same time, one of the hardest things to do is start a new habit. As a yoga teacher, I get asked all the time about health and wellness habits and how you can integrate exercise or better nutrition or meditation, for instance, into a daily routine that already seems overwhelming.

In yogic terms, the word samskara refers to the patterns we have developed in our lives that show themselves in the habits we have. In Sanskrit, sam refers to ‘complete or joined together’ and kara means ‘cause, action or doing.’ When we keep doing the same thing, or samskara, over and over again, we create a pattern that is very hard to break. I like to think of it like water flowing over the same rock in a stream, day after day, hour after hour. It wears a groove in the rock and that will continue to grow until the rock shifts and moves to a different position in the stream. But what causes the rock to move is usually an event or catalyst of some kind; a storm or maybe a person happening by that picks up the rock and places it in another location. Samskaras can be positive or negative; for our discussion here we’re talking about ends of the spectrum.

When you think of the rock in the above example and you think about the energy it takes to move a rock in a stream, that’s the kind of energy it can feel like it can take to break a bad habit. But it’s done all the time. I just heard the other day that Alcoholics Anonymous had its 75th anniversary. One of the hardest habits to break is alcohol addiction (or any substance abuse addiction) but it’s done all the time through this wonderful organization. That’s in large part due to the concept of surrounding yourself with people that all share the same goal as you- but, more on that technique later.

So this brings me to my first list of suggestion around “how to break a (bad) habit.” I hate to characterize anything as ‘bad’ or ‘good’ because that kind of polarization tends to get us into trouble, because it lacks an appreciation of how things can be in between, and especially in the case of habits, we know that a huge part of habits are based on our life story, our genetics, how we were raised, our family history, our culture, our role models. But we know that there are things that we do that we’d like to change and certainly anyone that’s had a recent physical exam may have been told by their doctor to change certain eating habits or start an exercise routine because it’s critical to their health and wellness. So, we know that there are things that are necessary to change in our life so that we may live long and healthy ones.

So, here is my short list of techniques you can use to break a habit you’d like to change:

1. Get educated about the impact of your habit on your life. This applies to things like smoking, drinking, overeating or any habit that has a direct impact on your health. There are lots of reality TV shows these days that introduce a physician into the mix and have that physician educate the student as to the impact of their unhealthy habit on their body. If you want to break a bad habit, start to learn more about what impact you’re having by continuing the habit. The recent museum show that brought donated bodies on display included presentations of actual lungs of smokers. It is a real awakening to see what impact something like smoking has on your body. Living with the pressure of constant stress is another thing that can have a huge impact on your body. Take a few minutes and do some internet research about how your habit is affecting you for both the short and long term. This works most easily with poor health habits but can be applied to other things as well.

2. In order for your habit to change, you have to change the association between your habit and your trigger activity. Most bad habits, like the samskaras we discussed before, have an association with some other activity. The person who craves a cigarette after a meal, the person who overeats when they are stressed, the person who goes into high stress whenever they are in particular work situations. It’s our ability to change these ‘trigger’ events and how we look at them that can make the difference between successful change of a bad habit and falling into a pattern of repeating past behaviors. So, if you know you overeat at night when watching TV, don’t buy junk food for your house. Take up knitting or another task you do with your hands so you can be distracted from munching by using your hands to do something else. If you know you’re stressed in a particular job or job situation, look to get training so you can build confidence in your skills. These are all fairly simple examples but hopefully, you get the point.

3. Stop associating yourself with the people that promote your habit and support it. This can be one of the hardest things to do and is not always possible if the person that supports your bad habit, or perhaps has the same habit is your spouse, significant other or someone to whom you share a close, emotional relationship. Working with that dynamic is another blog post unto itself. But, generally speaking, if you know that when you spend time with certain friends, there will be (fill in the blank) drinking, over-eating, over-spending, drug use, gossiping, or any other habit that you’re trying to break, the reality is you’re going to need to closely examine those connections and decide if they’re worth it. Who knows? By you deciding to work on changing your habit, you may inspire others to as well!

4. Give yourself the room to fall off the wagon and get back on without judgment. Start your habit-breaking process by acknowledging that you are human and will make mistakes. There will be times that you fall short of your new goals and your commitment will waver. But by being compassionate with yourself and giving yourself room for that right from the start, you allow yourself some room for these mis-steps that are bound to happen along the way. You also acknowledge them and doing that will prevent throwing in the towel completely when those inevitable mis-steps occur.

5. Practice meditation: I know, no one likes to meditate. It seems like nothing and is so hard to do! But sitting in stillness is one of the best ways to create awareness and having a habit we do all the time is an act of pure UN-consciousness. Sitting in stillness, even if it’s for a short period of time each day, will create an awareness that will give you the strength to break an unconscious pattern of UN-wellness.

6. Examine your life story: I’m not saying go to therapy, but I’m not ruling that out either. I’m also not suggesting that you have to go back to your childhood to find the root cause, if there is one, for your habit’s genesis. But there is no denying that the habits we create, especially the unhealthy ones, are often a product of something that is unresolved, unsaid, undone, incomplete, unfinished or unprocessed in our lives. There’s a saying that says, “ the only way out is through” and the basic context of this message as it relates to our discussion here is that in order to change a bad habit, you need to face whatever your reality is around that habit and go right through to the heart of the matter. This can be seen a great deal with habits around over-eating, excessive drinking or drug abuse. Refusing to face our feelings can lead to an urge to cover them up with something else. It’s that ‘something else’ that can often create the “bad” habit.

So, we’ve gone through a short list of ideas around breaking a ‘bad’ habit, so now let’s focus on the flip side, otherwise known as, “how to start a new habit. “

1. Find someone that already embodies your habit and form a connection with them. This could be a yoga teacher or someone that you will visit who will offer you a service which is your new “habit.” It could be a friend or someone in a particular industry that supports the new behavior you wish to display. In AA, they call it a sponsor and we may not be going to that degree, but the point is for you to find someone that can inspire you to stay the course.

2. Related to #1, surround yourself with people that support your habit. Facebook is a great tool for this kind of thing, from an electronic standpoint. You can join groups, or better yet, start one, and surround yourself with people that support the habit you are working to embody in your life. In-person clubs or social activities that put you in touch with people that support your new behavior is another way to engrain your new habit into your mind and body. There are also tons of blogs out there led by inspiring people who write daily on the ups and downs of staying on a particular path. Use these tools, both in-person and electronic, to keep you on track.

3. Look at your schedule and ‘schedule’ time for your habit, if possible. If your habit involves “doing” something, one of the challenges will be around finding the time in your schedule to do it, whatever it is. Making an appointment for yourself on a daily basis to do this new thing will help you start to find the time in your already busy life and once you get some traction and see some results, it will be easier. If your habit has to do with something around a particular mindset, setting a reminder on your phone to , “ Stay Present” or “Believe” or anything that gives you that little message of encouragement you may need to stay on track.

4. Keep a journal. Staying in touch with your feelings and what’s going on in your body and mind as you work to promote your habit as part of your life is likely to engender a lot of new feelings. Taking the time to write them down can be a valuable part of working through the struggle of starting something new. It also acknowledges the resistance that you may encounter when starting something new and gives you a healthy outlet for facing how you’re feeling rather than shoving it under the proverbial rug.

5. Celebrate your little successes. Building a new habit is a series of little steps along the way and every little step gives you an opportunity to build your confidence and self-esteem. It’s not really about an ‘end-goal’ per se; it’s more about creating a new daily routine. Buying fresh flowers or enjoying a healthy dinner out when you reach a new milestone; visiting the beach or a museum, or buying a new outfit or better yet spending a little money on something to promote your new behavior ( a nice journal or a new sports watch) is a way to reward yourself for a job well done for all the little pieces that will create the new puzzle of your life.

Throughout our lives, we will have many opportunities to make positive changes in our lives. We will also have opportunities to face the realities of how our behaviors are impacting our health and wellness and lifestyles in a less-than optimal way. Making positive change can be challenging but it is one of the best ways to validate the power of the human spirit to be flexible and strong at the same time. Be strong and remember, “the easy path leads to the hard life, but it is the hard path that can lead to the easy life.”

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