Protecting Good Habits

“Your beliefs become your thoughts, Your thoughts become your words, Your words become your actions, Your actions become your habits, Your habits become your values, Your values become your destiny.” - Mahatma Gandhi

5 min. read

We’ve heard it a million times: “old habits die hard.” But that’s not true. Truly, “bad habits die hard.” I can attest to this, using this Thought/Day project as an example.

Up until last week, I was 81 for 81 days in a row of writing and publishing a thought each day. There were a few that were nail biters, but 81 happened. In a row. And it became a good habit. I was writing every day, thinking about things a bit more critically than before, and having to do the magic that is taking a critical think and turning it into an intelligible thing. Like anything else, practice makes perfect.

Then I missed a day. I was on the road in Seattle and busy (away from my computer) from 6am ’til 4am the next day. By the time I got to the internet, I figured there was no point in rushing to throw something up, as I would be home later that day and might as well take my time to get the post up. I wrote a couple thoughts on the plane with that in mind. When I got home, I fell asleep almost immediately and didn’t wake up until the next day. Two days missed. Eff. My habit was shredded. The next couple days, I woke up knowing that I needed to post those previous thoughts as well as write a new one, but I was so slammed catching up with other things and trying to stave off Teen Flu that Thought/Day got backburnered, then forgotten. By Saturday, I was back on a plane again, and Thought/Day didn’t even cross my mind. What happened to me?! 

That’s the thing about good habits. If you’re not vigilant — if you don’t protect them — they’ll get gobbled up by bad habits right quick.

Bad habits like mindlessly surfing Netflix instead of doing something with intention, checking Facebook twelve times before reading one of the thousands of emails I need to read, etcetera. Your bad habits might be like mine, but they might not be. You know what they are, though. They’re the things you do when you truly want to be doing something else. They’re the short-term impulses you relent to at the expense of your long-term needs and wants. The things that enable you to fail comfortably at whatever you set out to accomplish.

“Ooo, I’m really attracted to that person. I should say hi.” Opens Pinterest on phone and scrolls for 15 minutes until person leaves “Dang. Guess I missed them. Next time.”

Good habits are the things that enable you do do what you actually want. They’re the long-term investments in your wellness, happiness, and warm fuzziness. Good habits are obvious to stop, but less obvious to adopt. Good habits lead us to say things like “I _know I should _do _\__…” and bad habits allow us to continue “…but right now I’m ___.” Good habits don’t often have immediate, visceral gratification; it’s usually delayed, at least a few minutes, but the reward is far greater. Good habits are eating pears from the tree you planted in your back yard last season; bad habits are chopping the tree down for firewood because you feel like walking very far.

If you’re struggling with adopting and protecting some good habits in your life, here are some of the things I keep in my mind that help me. While maintaining good habits isn’t the same as quitting bad habits, and each could justify its own separate thought, I’m going to group them together here for now.

  • Give it a couple weeks. If you’re trying to add something to your life (or take something away), give it at least 15 days before you decide if it’s something you want or not. You’ve probably heard the “research” that it takes [blank] days to form a habit. While I’m skeptical on that “research” I am confident that the longer you do something, the more you’ll be prepared to assess if it’s contributing positively to your life.
  • Add habits one by one. The tough part of New Year’s resolutions is so many people try to completely reinvent their life all at once. “I’m going to eat better and exercise more and stop dogfighting and start taking painting classes.” Easy there, Tiger. It’s easier to manage one life change at a time, and you’ll likely be far more successful. Start with one. Nail it. Then adopt another. (Might I suggest the “stop dogfighting”?)
  • Create a system of accountability. If you can do this publicly, even better. Tell a friend, tell all your friends on Facebook, and give progress reports. It doesn’t have to be public, it just has to be something that works for you. This Thought/Day habit is a testament to the effectiveness of this step, because when I stopped publishing thoughts last week one of my friends texted me asking me if I was alive.
  • Establish a clear vision. What is the purpose of this habit in your life? Why are you doing it? You don’t need to have a “goal” (e.g., “lose 15 pounds by August”), but you need to know why you’re doing it. If you’re doing it solely because you “should” — because there is some ambiguously persuasive figure pointing a finger at you — it’s not going to work. This Why is your sword you will use to protect your new Good Habit against every nefarious, gobble-hungry Bad Habit that will spring up along the way. If you don’t want your Good Habit gobbled, you better have a sharp sward, and one that fits in _your _hands.

If you have any other tips, I’d love to hear them. This is a forever-struggle for me, so I’m always open to insight.

Now, I have some retcon-ing to do with this project for last week. Oddly, I wrote most of the thoughts that are missing, I just didn’t find the time to publish them here because Netflix.