Stopping Bad Habits

Little weed grows up
Little weed grows up

Have you ever thought about the origin of bad habits?  Where do they come from and why are they so difficult to extract from our lives? I pondered this idea the other day when I was working in the yard.  You see, all summer I've been battling an unidentified weed that makes me crazy.

In the spectrum of nasty invaders, this little plant seems inoffensive.  There are no prickly parts and the leaves don't make my skin itch when I pull them. Even its appearance is reasonably attractive.

However, this little guy invades every crevice in my yard and mocks me by turning from spout to full-blown plant during a single work week. If I take a weekend off from pulling these plants, the bugger threatens to turn into a tree!

In fact, driving to work the other day, I noticed one home had several of these weeds hijacking an entire corner of their yard.  Clearly, someone was sleeping on their landscaping duties!

Fortunately, this weed is easily extracted if you pull the plant when it's small and the roots are shallow.  In comparison, the same is true for our bad habits.

Most of the time unwise habits start off small.  Usually, they don't appear particularly offensive in their early stages.

  • People usually start by sharing a little bit of information, before blossoming into full-blown gossips.
  • An occasional fast-food meal doesn't feel  bad until you realize you've gained 10 lbs!
  • Flirting with a co-worker doesn't seem to be dangerous until you grasp that every affair begins with flirting.
  • A sarcastic remark feels funny unless the person on the receiving end perceives the comments as mean.

Bad habits always start off with "gateway" behaviors that lure us into believing our actions are acceptable.  The best thing we can do to remove unhealthy behavior is to pull it from our lives while it's still small.   Doing that is a matter of asking and answering brutal questions of ourselves.  The process is simple, though not always easy.

Step One: Identify Dangerous Habits

The danger with all of our habits is how easy they are to overlook.  I could walk past the little weeds every day and think "all's well."  However, not recognizing our bad habits doesn't make them less dangerous.  To get a better handle on whether you're playing with fire, ask these questions:

  • Do you see your decisions leading you down a path with a desirable ending?  
  • If you feed the habit's appetite, will it yield something positive?
  • Does your habit require secrecy to continue?
  • Would the habit please your mom, spouse, kids, or boss?

If you answer any of these questions negatively, you KNOW your habit is dangerous and needs to be pulled.

Step Two: Make Practical Decisions to Remove the Habit

Imagine a worst-case scenario happening if you don't remove a specific behavior, then think about what "extremes" you would go to in order to avoid that "worst-case scenario."

For example, if you breech the confidence of a colleague and they were to find out, how would that impact your reputation? Would you be denied a promotion or would you be shut out of future information flow?  Or perhaps you're flirting with a co-worker; do you want that to grow into an affair? Do you want to live through what that will do to your relationship with your spouse and kids?

For both of those examples, think about what you would do avoid that narrative in your life story.  When you have that image in mind, then you can properly answer these two questions:

  • What boundaries do you need to establish to remove the destructive behavior?
  • Is any avoidance tactic too extreme for removing the effects of the bad habit?

The answers to these questions provide you with a foundation for a plan.  However, a plan isn't enough if you try to work through it alone.  For a plan to work, you need step three.

Step Three: Ask for Help

The best thing you can do when you know you want to avoid a habit is to COMMUNICATE the issue.  When it comes to challenges, I tell my friends there's no "win" in being a secret-keeper. Always TELL someone what you're struggling to change.

The history of Alcoholics Anonymous and every effective recovery process is to walk through behavior changes in the context of community. If you want to pull the weed when it's small, you'll need to involve others in the process.  In doing so, you'll have SUPPORT and  ACCOUNTABILITY for making the change.

In all of this, remember the analogy of the weeds; they are most easily eliminated when they're small and have shallow roots.  Be sure to keep your garden in order.