The Good and Bad of Habits

Habits allow us to not “think” about what we are doing, they’re an automatic response to stimuli. They can be useful when we are engaged in rote or mundane activities like the way we get up in the morning, the way we shower, or the way we clean the house. Because we don’t have to think about these activities, we can do them quickly and free our mind to think about other things such as planning our day.

While habits can help speed up some activities, they can also inhibit us from being successful. In fact, if you examine the results of your life and if you’re honest with yourself, you can quickly attribute your results to your habits. For instance, if you choose to procrastinate, if you consistently neglect to deliver on promises, if you handle work more than once (i.e., keep shuffling your “to-do’s” to the back of the pile consistently), if you save opened email in your inbox; then all of these habits lead you to experience a more stressful life. And with repetition of bad habits, stress compounds to  create even more stress.

Research shows that up to 90% of our behaviour is based in habit; but research also shows that habits can be modified in as little as 12 weeks. While the reasons why we engage in self-defeating habits can be as varied as the individuals themselves, there are ways to get on the track to success. Here are the steps you can take to eliminate your bad habits:

  1. Identify your negative habits. Write them down and have a good look at them.
  2. Select one habit that you wish to improve. (Yes, only one!).
  3. Identify behaviours that will replace the one habit you selected.
  4. Start practicing the new behavior(s) every day and keep practicing it for at least three months until it becomes habit. To help with this, use reminders–perhaps by placing post-it notes in locations you can’t miss, using pop-up reminders/alarms in your email calendar, or engaging others to assist you (e.g., coaching, telephone or other reminders, etc.).
  5. Commit to a “no exceptions” rule to stay on track with your new habit.

The last item, committing to a no exceptions rule is very important. If we decide to waver even slightly, our efforts may not pay off. Imagine if organizations decided to be “flexible” with their policies and procedures and allowed some exceptions, claiming that 99.9% is good enough. This would mean that your municipality would be okay with providing one hour of unsafe drinking water per month or two unsafe landings at major airports each day are acceptable or it’s okay for doctors around the country to drop 50 newborn babies at birth every day–I’m sure you’ll agree that none of these scenarios is acceptable.

If you replace one bad habit with a new behavior every three months, you will acquire four new positive habits each year. This translates to at least four steps closer to a more successful life–whatever success may look like for you.

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