Evanston RoundTable, April 6, 2017
We are all creatures of habit. Habits permeate our daily life, so much so that we don’t even realize the extent of their hold on us. But observe yourself carefully one morning. You might find that you brush your teeth, put on your clothes, eat breakfast, drink coffee, drive to work, listen to the radio, and park the car the same way, every day.
That is not necessarily a bad thing. People form habitual routines for lots of reasons, one of which is to let autopilot take over. “The brain can almost completely shut down,” says Charles Duhigg, author of “The Power of Habit.” “And this is a real advantage, because it means you have all of this mental activity you can devote to something else.”
Nevertheless, it is useful to take stock of our daily habits. Because in the midst of this patchwork of patterns often lurk useless, unhelpful, and sometimes even dangerous and destructive ones.
Take driving. Many people, especially on routes they take all the time, tend to lapse into extreme inattentiveness and drive in a trancelike state known as highway hypnosis or white line fever, which is a first cousin to drowsy driving. Taken together, these driving patterns can have serious consequences. A 2009 survey conducted by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control (CDC) reported that nearly 5% of adults had fallen asleep while driving the previous month.
Or smoking. Despite everything that is known about the dangers of cigarettes, almost one in of five Americans cannot break the habit. Smoking is the No. 1 health hazard in this country and results in almost half a million deaths a year, according to the CDC.
Even a seemingly innocuous habit like late-night snacking can be a problem if it leads to serious weight gain, which can cause diabetes, high blood pressure, and heart disease.
The good news is that “every single bad habit can be broken,” even longstanding ones, says Patricia Farrell, a clinical psychologist and author of “How to Be Your Own Therapist.”
There are many approaches to breaking unhealthy habits, but there is a consensus around a few simple steps:
- Acknowledge the habit and its consequences.
- Eliminate triggers or cues, like drinking that leads to smoking.
- Seek support. Ask your friends or family to help your efforts. Making the ask is a big step, because it commits you to change the behavior in a public way.
- Substitute healthier habits. Instead of a 500-calorie chocolate bar, try a 60-calorie chocolate candy. Or when the craving to smoke a cigarette strikes, try smoking a pipe, even an unlit one. That might satisfy the oral urge.
- Never assume you cannot quit. Excuses are not the same as reasons.
- Don’t worry about lapses. If you slip, brush it off and start anew.
Be creative, be brave, and most of all, be persistent.