The habits of a lifetime are hardest to break

We have so many ingrained behaviours that we haven’t even realised we don’t enjoy TV anymore or that our procrastination can be overcome, writes Emer Sexton

I AM not into self-help books. There are so many, each one identifying a problem that I didn’t know I had. But I think that we should all see a therapist, at least once a month.

Like in a Woody Allen film, I like the idea of lying on the couch, considering my anxieties with a soothing professional, who has to listen to me for an hour, without judgement.

I could go on and on…but I digress, and this could be part of my ‘strategy of distraction’, which Gretchen Rubin examines in her book, Better than Before; Mastering the Habits of our Everyday Lives.

Having read the book, I could frame this article as a series of questions: what are my habits, good and bad? What do I need to change? What are my tendencies, what kind of person am I?

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Every facet of your ‘habit’ character can be analysed. Someone who gets up early, does what they are told, works steadily to finish projects and likes to have extras of everything (spare light bulbs, every possible variation of saucepan, a store cupboard for food) is a lark, upholder, marathoner and an over-buyer.

I am most interested in procrastinators. We studied Hamlet, that most famous procrastinator, for Leaving Certificate English and, sadly, he came to a sticky end.

Procrastination is damaging and I am using Rubin’s book to overcome it by avoiding ‘tomorrow logic’. But just not right now.

You may need to read Rubin’s book more than once to benefit from her strategies, and you may finally learn why certain resolutions just don’t work for you.

You may want to exercise, but never manage it, so it may be that you need an exercise partner (‘accountability’) who will drag you out for a walk, or maybe you should exercise while listening to an audio book or podcast ( ‘pairing’).

You may need a ‘lightning bolt’ moment to change your habits. For women, it often comes during pregnancy, when they discover that they can stop smoking, or can cut down on alcohol.

After Christmas, I decided to have a mug of hot water with a slice of lemon every morning, instead of tea. Now, I don’t feel right if I don’t have it, yet I will often skip it at the weekend, as if it is a chore and not something I enjoy.

Gretchen identifies this as ‘loophole-spotting’, and we all do this. We find a way of not sticking to routines, even if our habits are good and enjoyable. Sometimes, human nature is inexplicable, hence the number and variety of self-help books.

The habits of a lifetime are hardest to break

After reading the section on ‘how I like to spend my time’ and considering what I regard as a ‘treat’ or a ‘reward’, I have identified a few things that I didn’t consciously realise I no longer enjoy.

I don’t enjoy shopping, unless it is to help someone else buy something, and then I can only do this for about an hour.

I no longer enjoy television, because I don’t like reality TV, and I don’t follow soaps, and, lately, I feel that watching TV is becoming a bad habit, because it isn’t any fun.

I intend to follow the ‘strategy of scheduling’, because I want to feel I have more control over work and how I spend my time. Decision-making can be exhausting and good habits can eliminate the need for minor decision-making.

Rubin summarises her suggestions in her ‘habits manifesto’: 1. What we do every day matters more than what we do once in a while. 2. Make it easy to do it right and hard to do it wrong. 3. Focus on actions, not outcomes. I watched a friend work on her garden recently and I thought “but it will take so long until it is finished”. Wrong — it will never be finished, so we should start our gardens one potted plant at a time.

If you don’t have something that needs changing, then simply choose a new, good habit.

I like her idea of ‘power hour’. Once a week, for one hour, I will tackle all those tasks that keep nagging at me, but which I can never seem to do, like putting all those photos into an album.

Once you have decided on your new habit, write it somewhere so that you cannot forget.

Always do it. Don’t reward yourself for doing it — the reward should be in the habit itself.

By the end of this, you will be full of useful maxims, but I don’t know if you will still have friends.

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 - If you are trying to lose weight find out if you are a natural ‘Abstainer’. If so, develop the habit of saying no to something entirely rather than attempting moderate consumption. How many of us can eat half a chocolate eclair?

 - Get into the habit of ‘Monitoring’. Change patterns of negative thinking by actively noticing your thoughts, writing them down and then ask yourself why was I thinking that? Also applies to eating, spending, etc.

 - Buy a white board, and each day schedule an activity for every hour, from breakfast to bedtime. This instantly gives you more control. Farewell procrastination!

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