Are bad habits killing you?
The classic bad habits are too much alcohol and caffeine and not enough water, sleep and recovery. Photo: Simone de Peak
The World Health Organisation estimates that in 2008, 63 per cent of people died due to bad habits including smoking, alcohol or poor nutrition.
Do the sums and you'll realise that every single year more than 9 million people die before the age of 60 because of poor lifestyle choices.
In my job as an executive coach, I'm continually working with smart people who do really dumb things when it comes to their habits. The classic ones I see are too much alcohol and caffeine and not enough water, too much sitting down on ever-expanding backsides, too much stress and overload, and not enough sleep and recovery.
This often adds up to too much time in the office, attending to the internet, email and other distractions, and not enough time spent on your actual job, looking after your health or with important people in your life.
Life is one big habit
I'm sure you woke up at pretty well the same time this morning, had the same breakfast, took the same route to get to work as you did last week, you ordered the very same coffee from the very same coffee shop and for lunch you had the same sandwich or pasta dish.
I know this because our lives are composed of hundreds and hundreds of cues, routines and rewards – called habits.
Research shows these are instinctively woven into our everyday lives and develop without us even being aware of them. A habit is any action that we perform so regularly that it almost becomes an involuntary response. In fact sociologists believe that 85 to 90 per cent of daily human behaviour is ingrained habit.
Soft addictions or bad habits?
Soft Addictions are those seemingly harmless habits like continually surfing the internet, endlessly checking your mobile phone, compulsive shopping, overeating, watching too much TV, procrastinating - that actually holds us back from achieving our goals and enjoying the life we want. Soft addictions cost money, erode time, deplete energy levels and can even numb our feelings and relationships. And guess what? We all have them.
When the behaviour no longer soothes or relaxes you and starts to consume you, it moves from a soft addiction to a bad habit.
And the primary reason why so many people fail when trying to change their habits is there is no magic cure or potion. Behaviour change is hard work and there is no short cut to achieving it. Follow the steps below to help change your habits and stick to your plan.
Six steps to busting bad habits
Identify the habit
The first step to modify any behaviour or habit is to identify exactly what it is. Identify the biggest 'soft addiction' or bad habit in your life right now. What is likely to happen if you keep this habit going? Will it affect your job, finances, health, relationships, longevity? Being mindful and attentive is one of the most important factors to disrupting bad habits that have become automated behaviours.
Examine your motivation
Why do you stick to this habit? Does it make you feel better, is it a social response, is it due to boredom or loneliness? Understanding why you repeat behaviour is a key step in the change process. Next, make sure you want to change habits for the right reasons. You're much more likely to succeed if you're changing the habit for yourself and not for someone else.
Target keystone habits
A keystone habit unlocks other patterns in your life. Studies show that people who start a physical activity program also start eating better and are more productive at work. Keystone habits create a sense of identity from what we do and to make these stick, you need to establish a cue and a reward.
An example of a cue is to work for an hour without checking email. The reward is to allow yourself to search the internet for five minutes at the end of the hour, then go back to working undisturbed again.
Identify road blocks
Be proactive and recognise potential road blocks along the way. If you're trying to give up smoking what are you going to do when you have a drink in a social setting and other people around you light up? Being conscious of your thoughts and thinking patterns will help when the little voice inside starts chirping away telling you 'it's ok to go back to bed start the fitness plan tomorrow'. Identifying potential road blocks helps avoid surprises along the way and increases the likelihood of success.
Make yourself accountable
You don't have to be Han Solo and do it all alone. Informing friends, family and colleagues about your change program is not only good for support during the tough times, they will also help you stay on track and remain accountable.
Better still, invest in a coach who will keep you truly accountable and dramatically increase your chances of changing behaviour.
Reward yourself along the way and celebrate the small victories. Breaking bad habits can be a timely, long process. Pay attention to details along the way and remind yourself of how many days you've been following the new plan, list the positive changes this has brought into your life and take time out to reflect on your accomplishments.
Just be realistic how you celebrate. If you lose 10kgs, knocking back a chocolate cake by yourself might not be the smartest reward!
The point of a habit is that it doesn't require thought. Variety may be the spice of life, but it doesn't necessarily create habits. Make sure your behaviour is as consistent as possible over a set period of time. This helps ensure the new habits are locked in, instead of multiple habits loosely conditioned.
Are bad habits holding you back, or have you found a smart way of overcoming them?