I have a collection of coffee mugs. There is one mug in particular that is my all-time favorite … a fact I made known to my husband in hopes to secure my exclusive rights to it. He used it the other day -I forgave him.
Habits. Some seem silly – like having a favorite mug for coffee. Others are important because they directly affect our health and well-being.
Certainly our lives are made easier when we don’t have to stop, think and plan every action. Brushing one’s teeth falls into this category. And, because brushing teeth is a daily habit for most of us, we make it even easier to accomplish by making it convenient. Toothbrush and toothpaste are usually kept in the bathroom closest to the bedroom. If one’s toothbrush were kept in the basement and toothpaste in the kitchen, how regularly would they get used?
Habits help me to manage my diabetes. I have two BG meters. I keep one in the kitchen and one in my desk at work. When I’m going to be away all day, I put one of them in my purse or briefcase. Convenience supports my habit of BG monitoring.
Making undesirable habits inconvenient has proven to be an effective way to break them. When I was a child we had a candy dish in the dining room which was right in the “traffic pattern.” That is, we all walked by it going from the kitchen to the living room. Once I got diabetes, my mother substituted nuts for the candy, thinking nuts would be healthier. Then, fat became a more prominent issue in diabetes management, so I decided I wanted to avoid eating nuts.
To my dismay, I found myself repeatedly eating nuts because it had become such a habit to walk through the dining room with my arm out! So, I moved the dish with the nuts to a different part of the dining room. Now, in order to get the nuts, I had to stop and go out of my way. In the few seconds that it took to stop and redirect my steps, I had time to think about what I was doing. It was then that I could step out of unconscious action and make a conscious choice.
That was how I came to understand what the behavioral psychologists had been saying for years: “to break a habit, interrupt its natural sequence.” Essentially, make it inconvenient. That’s also the best way I have found to control inappropriate snacking. I do not keep junk food in my house. If it isn’t there, I can’t eat it. If I would have to get in my car and drive to the grocery store (bakery or ice cream shop) to satisfy a craving, I would not likely indulge myself. Once I’ve thought through all that I’d have to do, the “urge to splurge” has passed.
A Spanish proverb says: “Habits are at first cobwebs, then cables.” New habits need lots of care and attention. They are fragile at first. It took me years to establish a regular exercise habit. The first slender threads were good intentions. They fell apart under the weight of bad weather, a busy work schedule and the age-old nemesis “procrastination.” Reinforcement came in many forms.
Aerobic class helped. Because I’d paid for the class, I was more committed to attending. A mini-trampoline provided a great workout during the years when my son watched Sesame Street. We watched it together. (The 3-year-old sat still while the 32-year-old jumped and jogged.) Additional “threads” of more apparatus, a health club membership and a buddy system gave further strength. Finally, my cobweb was a cable.
You can make habits work for you … and change the habits that work against you.