Getting Ahead of Bad Habits

by Tim Arendse on March 2

4Twice in my life, I’ve had to say goodbye to my brother.

The first time was in a hospital room in Regina, Saskatchewan. He’d been in a severe motorcycle accident, nearly costing him his life. Although I’d been able to visit him, there was no guarantee that he would survive the next few days. Luckily, he recovered and went on to start a family.

The second time was about 10 years later. I’d gotten a phone call that my brother had gone into septic shock. His condition declined over the next few days, with him finally going into a medically-induced coma. Each night I went to sleep, I knew that a midnight phone call would mean I’d never speak to my bro again.

But the human body is resilient, and over the next few weeks, he made a miraculous recovery. Days after leaving the hospital, his daughter was born.

We tend to worry about these acute occurrences. Tragedies like these, they stagger us. They knock us flat on our backs. They make us cry and curse and affirm our beliefs that the world isn’t fair. But thankfully, they’re rare events. Where most people lose is in the bad decisions that we make every day.

How Decisions Accumulate into Habits

Most people don’t lose it all because of one dumb mistake. Working in warehouses for the past 12 years, I’ve seen some incredibly risky behavior. I’ve never seen anyone pay for their mistakes, aside from being reprimanded for violating safety rules.

People lose when they make bad decisions, every day, for years on end.

People don’t get fat because of one bad decision; they get fat from hundreds of bad decisions.

Most people don’t go into consumer debt over one big purchase; they go into consumer debt from dozens of unaffordable purchases.

Relationships don’t just go from happy to sour. It takes months or years of negative encounters.

Once you start consistently making bad decisions, we start calling them habits. Bad habits are how you lose everything.

The Hidden Loss

I’ve lost a lot from bad habits. I’ve lost tens of thousands of dollars from bad spending. I’ve wasted countless hours, where I set out to do one thing and ended up distracted on the internet. I’ve probably shaved hours off my life from bad eating.

And yet, I keep making those bad decisions. Why? Because they don’t look like bad decisions at the time.

Unhealthy eating and outlandish spending might masquerade as rewards. Distraction might manifest as well-deserved relaxation. Whatever the bad habit is, it probably looks like a good decision at the time. If it didn’t, you’d probably avoid it.

Beating the Habit

To beat a bad habit, you have to become aware of it. You have to know where you’re at. In order to beat the darkness, you have to drag it out into the light. Here’s how I do it:

Step 1 – Identify your habit – you’ll want to dedicate a binder, duo-tang, or notebook to each habit.

Step 2 – Write down what you were doing when the trigger hit – lay it out exactly as it happened. Earlier today, my junk food habit was triggered when my wife suggested we stop at the coffee shop. The day before, a comedy of errors led to stress, which led to binging on sweets.

Step 3 – Write down what you did about it – there’s no wrong answer here. If you gave in to your craving write it down. If you managed to curb it, write it down.

This is where you’ll want to experiment. At the height of a triggered state, I’ve drawn pictures depicting how I feel. I’ve dropped to the floor and done ten push-ups, even in my office.

Every time I’ve done this practice, I’ve quickly become aware of my triggers and the habit itself. The mere act of filling in the template often derails the habit.

“But if this really works, why haven’t you solved all your problems?”

We tend to stop doing the very things that got us to a good place. It’s not unlike antibiotics; many people stop taking them once they feel better.

My hypothesis is that environment enables and disables habits. If you don’t change your environment, you will eventually slip back into bad habits.

Here are a few prime examples of how your environment enables your habits:

Keeping junk food in the house
Not throwing away your pack when you quit smoking
Not using a website blocker when you have actual work to do on the computer

Environment also includes the people around you. If your friends look like they’re carved out of marble, you’ll have an easier time staying healthy. If your friends can’t stay off the junk, you’ll have a hard time, too.

Going on the Offense

As I was writing this article, I realized that I expend a lot of energy on “playing defensively”. That is, instead of focusing on the future and making things great, I’m in a constant battle with bad decisions.

This is the true tragedy of life: repeating the same crappy patterns over and over until you die. The technique I described is a damn good start to interrupting those patterns, but it’s not enough. If you don’t change your environment, you will go back to your old ways.

How about you? Do you have experience changing your environment to finish off a bad habit for good?

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Tim Arendse

When he’s not playing with his kids, Tim is finding new ways to make his life more efficient. He likes to draw inspiration from unlikely sources, like Minecraft, and is willing to explore almost any paradigm if he thinks there’s something to learn. He also hates bananas, loves candy, and holds strong opinions about the best brand of beer.

{ 6 comments… read them below or add one }

Suzanne Sobers March 2, 2016 at 10:12 am

It’s so true how we can develop hugely stressful problems and situations by consistently taking the wrong actions even though they seem insignificant at the time we’re doing them. This is a great post Tim.

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Elizabeth Olagunju March 2, 2016 at 12:34 pm

Love this article Tim, it’s critical to identify the habit first. Thank you for sharing.

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Tara Woodruff March 2, 2016 at 3:56 pm

Wow Tim. This was fantastic to read. I appreciate these points you make here. For me , its about being Aware of what we are Doing and Being in each given Moment and being Fully present. Thank you.

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Holly March 3, 2016 at 1:40 am

I really enjoyed this, Tim. It got me thinking about lots of different things. Like, that the cliche is true, that the major, difficult things people experience in life, even if not us directly, can remind us of how small many of our other ‘problems’ really are, and how much energy we expend indulging in them, using them as excuses, or avoiding the place where our focus really needs to go. IOW, The Great Wake Up Call. What’s best is if you can remain cognisant of this when shit is not upside down and inside out, like you seem to be aiming for. Problems really are relative to the individual, but we can all make the effort to make the best of the cards we are dealt. I guess this is the role that conscious gratitude can play in shifting our emotional state enough that breaking bad habits/striving forward is less pushing shit uphill, and more motivating.

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Gabor March 3, 2016 at 2:32 am

This article gives a good understanding to anyone who wants to beat habits!
Good job!

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Lynn Brown March 3, 2016 at 8:11 pm

Habits good or bad determine our success. And you shared some great tips and information Tim that can overcome those bad habits. Thanks for your valuable insight.

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