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Habits: keep or change? Here is how you do it

Anita Cassidy

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Over the summer I thought a lot about change and the different types of change that goes on in our lives. One of the reasons I wrote Appetite was to identify how change happens and how it is acceptance of self and habits that leads to change, not the beating of the self with “should’s”. This post is about habits, change and how I worked with two habits of my own, one habit that contributed to my life and one that did not.

Habits are shortcuts to where we think we want to be, as well as things we have created (usually unconsciously) based on patterns we observed or which were acted out on our behalf as we were growing up. Habits can be helpful – making the bed, brushing teeth, eating a piece of fruit a day – or they can be less helpful. Under stress, we often revert to patterns of behaviour that are instantly comforting but can be harmful in the long term.

Conversations around sugar and habits all too often focus on weight or use shaming to try and create change but there is a paradigm shift happening as people increasingly realise that the focus needs to be on the unique, individual experience of what feels better for you – how and when do you feel mostly well in yourself and what habits contribute to that.

The tax on sugary drinks went into effect in April 2018 and, while the short-term effect tends to be an immediate reduction in the amount of drinks bought and consumed, long-term the impact is often less profound than hoped for.

Cost may be a barrier for some – though, as with cigarettes and alcohol, most people make changes to the other things they buy to accommodate a rising cost in items they desire. The main reason why taxes intended to discourage consumption don’t work is because they do not fundamentally change the habits and behaviours that drive that consumption.

The best thing about any habit is that there is only one person who can change it: you. The worst thing about any habit is that there is only one person who can change it: you.

The changing of a habit can be identified in three steps.

1. Identifying there is something you do that you would like to do more, or less often.

2. Fully accepting, without blame or shame or critical self talk, that this is something that you do less of than you would like, or want to do more of

3. Beginning to consciously adapt your behaviour over time.

To illustrate this, I have two stories to share, one about stopping a thing, and one about doing more of a thing.

Diet Coke

When I stopped drinking alcohol in 2014, I started to drink more diet soda. I was drinking usually one or two but often three cans a day. I liked it, it felt like a treat. It felt like a nice thing to have when I was out as well as a reward throughout my day. As I wrote Appetite, I started reading more about sugar and came across evidence about the role that artificial sweeteners play in making you crave sugar later; their role in types of cancer and other diseases was also being made clearer. I felt that anxiety of not wanting to be drinking something like that – but I still liked it. I still wanted and felt like I needed it. And the anxiety made me want to drink even more.

I started to focus more on what it was actually like to drink a Diet Coke: the flat, predictable taste; the fact that unless it was super-cold it tasted kind of chemical; the way that I felt bloated after drinking it. And with the noticing came some new facts about Diet Coke that helped me see it less as a treat and more like something that I THOUGHT was a treat but which actually tasted not so great. I stopped drinking it. And, three years later, have not touched a diet drink since.

Writing

I discovered National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo) in 2012 and, that November, I wrote my first ever book. 50,000 words, most of which were garbled nonsense, and the remains of which are still hidden in a yellow plastic bag like the discarded remnants of a long-forgotten crime scene. I wrote another 50,000-word story in 2013. Again, only in November. I was blogging in between at this point but only a few hundred words most weeks and all non-fiction.

I began to see that writing made me feel good and I wanted to do more of it. As I approached January 2014, I resolved to write every day and so, to help me do this, I signed up to the ‘100k in 100 days’ challenge on Facebook, a group that supports people in writing approximately 1,000 words a day every day for 100 days. Doing that helped me to develop a positive habit of writing every day which I have mostly continued since and which has seen me write and finish one novel, write another as well as a few other shorter drafts, and countless blog posts and other pieces in the last four years. While there were times when it was hard, the positive feedback loop of writing most days and feeling better in myself was a powerful one, and helped sustain the habit over the difficult periods. It took me a while a to allow myself breaks…

What these examples hopefully show is that change can be sudden or gradual but it always begins with ACCEPTANCE of the thing that you are doing.

We shouldn’t say: Oh, I’m drinking three Diet Cokes a day and they might give me cancer but I’m addicted and I can’t stop… Or, I am not writing more than a few months a year and I am never going to get anywhere. This is where most of us struggle – the story we tell ourselves is that where we are now is fixed state of affairs. We judge and dislike ourselves for the way we are currently behaving, and this self-criticising (hating, even) is what gets in the way of change happening.

So, any change starts with acceptance and can be supported by a few other things. Accountability can help with new habits such as exercise or writing/learning a new skill. It can be helpful to have someone to share successes, plateaus and frustration with – ‘Yay, this makes a difference’, ‘Meh – I feel kind of in the middle’ or ‘Boo, I am finding this hard this week.’

Understanding the benefits of doing/not doing is key too. Why do you want to do/not do something? Write down the reasons, and revisit them while you build the habit. Be your own cheerleader!

Most of us lead complex and also quite unpredictable lives, so flexibility is important but so is not letting too long pass without fulfilling the new, positive habit. The negative feedback of ‘I’ve missed a week or two of xx and I feel less good…’ can be a helpful reinforcement of the benefits of doing something, but equally it can make getting back into it harder. You’ll figure out your own benchmarks and guidelines. For me, if I don’t exercise for three weeks I find it really hard to get back into. If I don’t write for a week or so, I feel it impact on my well-being as well as my ability to cope. These are the guidelines that work for me. You can feel and figure out your own as you go along.

If you want to make conscious changes to any of your own habits and are looking for support, get in touch: anita.cassidy@alethya.com

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