When was the last time you took a new route to work or changed the part in your hair? Did you decide a really long time ago you didn’t like a certain food, like brussel sprouts, so you never, ever tried it again?
It’s easy to to make a habit of behaviors that feel comfortable, flow smoothly and only require occasional minor adaptation. Routines provide a safe feeling, you know what to expect, and you come to identify with the person you see in the mirror.
Granted, there’s something to be said for making a habit of regular dental hygiene, for instance, or driving to work using a route with predictable stoplights and traffic patterns.
That’s part of the benefit of habits – they become so much a part of you that you can funnel less mental energy into them. And that frees up your mind for creative thoughts, like ‘what’s a seven-letter word for organic fertilizer?’
The flip-side of routines is this: after a while, we pay so little attention that sometimes we don’t notice a problem until it’s a BIG one. In our bodies, minor annoyances become chronic pain, insomnia and outright misery because we follow the same patterns day to day despite that tiny warning light that says ‘stop and check engine’.
While I struggled to recover from the depleting drugs and the emotional drain of chemo, it frustrated me that habits which used to comfort me – eating sweet, rich food, drinking coffee to wake up, and even complaining, and blaming other people for my problems- didn’t satisfy me anymore. My habits had formed a roadblock to healing.
Having a health problem or crisis has a way of making you re-examine how you do just about everything. That’s how I discovered the truth about this old maxim – if you do what you’ve always done, you’ll get what you’ve always gotten.
When it comes to health care, we’ve been trained to get results without requiring a change of patterns, habits, or ways of thinking. A pill or surgery gets the depression, the pain, or chronic irritation to stop bothering us. But this approach often masks the real issue, and we end up having to go back to deal with the core problem later.
There’s no way around it. Getting genuinely healthy means making permanent CHANGE. And there’s no time like the present to start. My life coach calls these ‘small, sweet steps’.
- Start by observing habitual behavior, like midnight snacking, mindless refills of coffee all morning, or even checking and re-checking email, twitter or Facebook 14 times a day (the national average for smartphone users).
- Decide ahead of time what you’ll do when faced with the temptation to snack, fill up your cup or tap into social media to fill space in your day.
- Be specific, then write it down. “I will only check my [insert social media platform] twice a day at [insert actual times].
- And then stick to it. Give yourself a week to catch on. And eventually you’ll get un-stuck, lose weight, sleep better, feel less pain, be less stressed out. And happier.
Every now and then, it’s healthy to fluster and confound your brain, shut down the cruise control driving those habits. Make new connections.
Like freshly hiked paths, these brain connections have to be ‘trod on’ over and over until the new behavior/thought is learned and becomes the new routine. That takes some work. It will frustrate and irritate you and tempt even the strongest of you to slip back into old patterns.
Without a plan, I always fail at this. I’m a genius at coming up with excuses for unhealthy behavior – the best one is “I don’t really have PROOF that this is a problem for me, so one more [insert behavior] won’t hurt.”
By mapping out my detour, I know where I’m going and what success looks like. At the new destination is a sense of accomplishment, pride, and a more flexible, creative me, with brain connections that lead to crossword answers like ‘compost’ [raise your hand if you got that one 🙂 ].