Which is harder: keeping new good habits going or preventing new bad habits from growing? This is a question we face often with our clients. They say something like, “I began a great start-of- the-day routine where I got up, drank two glasses of lemon water, did my Tignum Daily Prep movements, spent 10 minutes reviewing my calendar for the day and setting some clear intentions, ate a high performance breakfast, and even focused on a home-to-work transition. But after a month I found that I suddenly wasn’t doing it anymore.” Or they say something like, “I was coming home after a long day and enjoying a great glass of red wine with my spouse, but before I knew it I was having 3 glasses and an after-dinner cocktail. How did this happen?” Do either of these ring a bell with you?
So, which of these are the easier trap to fall in to? We have found through our coaching that actually the easier and more subtle trap is the bad habit trap. Why is this?
First, the conscious/unconscious factor. Good habits require conscious thought and planning. Bad habits seem to happen unconsciously and don’t require thinking energy. In this way, bad habits almost feel more natural.
Second, the effort/benefit factor. For example, the morning routine takes some effort up-front and, although you feel some benefits immediately, 3 cups of coffee could appear to produce the same benefit. On the flip side, drinking 3 or 4 glasses of wine doesn’t require any effort and you get the immediate benefits of feeling loose, relaxed, and carefree.
Third, the self-efficacy factor. Most of us falsely believe that bad habits won’t do nearly as much harm as they will, and we also falsely believe that we could stop them at any time. While this is always charming to a performance coach, we all know that this is not true.
Knowing that the scales are tilted toward developing more bad habits and against developing more good habits, what can you do?
First, raise your awareness of the bad habits you currently have and what benefit you may be seeking from them. For example, when you work feverishly through lunch, you may feel like it is making you more efficient and saving you time. The problem is, the potential time you are saving while stressfully eating is creating inflammation in your gut, compromising your digestion, and unconsciously forcing you to compromise your ability to focus and concentrate. Another example may be when you come home and immediately go to the bar and start drinking wine. You are clearly after the benefit of relaxation. The problem is by the third glass of wine you are starting to create an insulin response that will alter your blood glucose, you are compromising your quality of sleep, and you are damaging your main detoxification organ – your liver. When you become aware of the habits that aren’t serving you and you are aware of the benefits you are seeking, you may just find a much better solution.
Second, create a system to become aware of when your bad habits have crossed the line from harmless and fun to the point where they are diminishing your effectiveness, impact, and performance. This can be as simple as counting how many meetings you go to unprepared, or counting how many alcoholic drinks you have every night, or keeping track of how many days you don’t do any morning movement to prepare for your day. Once you have all of this written down, you can easily set a smoke alarm. When you are burning your dinner, you are producing smoke but it isn’t enough smoke to immediately set off the alarm. But if you continue to burn your food, the alarm goes off and you turn off the burner and remove your food. You can take this exact same approach to any bad habit you want to change.
Third, rewrite your self-image where you not only don’t do the bad habits, you also consciously and consistently do the good habits. Without this step, you are almost certain to have your bad habits creep back in and your good habits quickly creep out. If my self-image is of me being sedentary all day, eating nothing but junk food, winging my meetings, and then coming home and drinking myself to sleep with mixed drinks, then no matter how hard I try to create new habits, my brain will sabotage me to fail. It will start a cruel inner dialogue where I rationalize that my behavior isn’t that bad, I will try to convince myself that I am smart enough to wing it, and I will compare myself to others who are certainly worse than me. This is funny at times but it definitely isn’t high performance.
The truth is that bad habits too often creep into your life and good habits too often creep out. If you create a self-image of yourself as a Sustainable High Performer (SHP), with SHP habits, and enjoying your SHP benefits (energy, resilience, mental agility, impact, fun, achievement, etc.), your brain will unconsciously try to align your behaviors with this image. Similarly, if you attack your bad habits with awareness and alert alarms to let you know when they are getting out of hand, you can quickly and consciously change directions.
As Aristotle said, “Excellence isn’t a single act but a habit.” This is why if you want to be your best when it matters most to you, you will need to extinguish your bad habits, stop the bad habit creep, and create some great Sustainable High Performance habits. Remember, you are always just one choice away from creating your next habit.
As always, I would love to hear what you think.
By Scott Peltin
Founder/Chief Performance Officer