How can we know when it's time to change a habit? Simply put -- when a habit interferes with your life, it's time to break it. A bad habit undermines your sense of self-esteem, poses a danger to your health and/or interferes in your personal or professional relationships.
Your habits can be major obstacles to your becoming the kind of person you want to be. That's because virtually everything you do is the result of habit. Probably 95 percent of your actions and reactions are automatic, unconscious responses to your physical and human environment, according to Brian Tracy, author of "Maximum Achievement." Yikes!
The most dangerous habits are mental habits. Whatever you continually think about, you create in your life, and your negative or self-limiting thoughts hurt you more than almost anything else. If we can change our ways of thinking, we can change our results, but it takes time - and commitment.
You have to be sure you're really ready to change. Changing habits that no longer serve you is one of the hardest things you'll ever do.
Bad habits often fall into three categories:
There are payoffs, too. That's why we keep performing the behaviors. Huh? LeVert and McClain give an example of the benefits that Phoebe, a graphic artist, gets in the short term by procrastinating:
These short-term "fixes" usually pale in comparison when compared with long-term advantages. That's just it, though. The habit, as an ingrained behavior and automatic response, doesn't necessarily respond to logical, rational thinking. That's why it's so hard for willpower to win out over the emotional tugs, although temporary, of a lot of bad habits: comfort and love, reward, stimulation, relaxation and distraction, and the biggie -- fear (which comes in many forms).
Substitution is an important part of breaking a habit, substituting a healthier behavior than the one you usually allow to take over. It's all part of the pain/pleasure cycle. Most everything we do (consciously or unconsciously) is motivated out of a desire to avoid pain or further pleasure. Repetition is the key. Your "system" needs to be retrained; and every time it registers the substitute behavior, the pull of the usual behavior is weakened.
Baby steps, rewards and short-term goals. Consistency. Getting back up after a relapse. Giving yourself credit -- and not beating yourself up. These are the steps that will, over time, lead to success. Serious addictions, obviously, require more work and more resources. "Breaking Bad Habits" provides some tips for a variety of bad habits: overeating, nail biting, sloppiness, disorganization, overdrinking, smoking, caffeine addicts, spendthrifts and relationship cheaters, to name a few.
Our habits form our future. Just as a train is directed by the rails it rolls on, our lives are directed by our habits. Unless we build new rails -- or habits -- our lives will continue to move toward the same old places on the same old rails.
There's good news, though! Just as habits are learned, they can be unlearned. Every confrontation with an unfriendly habit is a victory. Every time we lay a new foot of track in a different direction, we affect the quality of our future.
Every time counts.
Linda Arnold, MBA, is a certified wellness instructor and chairwoman and CEO of The Arnold Agency, a marketing communications company specializing in advertising, public relations, government relations and interactive marketing. Reader comments may be directed to Linda Arnold, The Arnold Agency, 117 Summers St., Charleston, WV 25301.