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Harnessing the power of habit for postive change

How to turn your enforced routine changes into a powerful force for your future health and wellbeing

Photo by Drew Beamer on Unsplash

As most of us face unprecedented shake ups to our work and social routines, our established patterns of behaviour are being turned upside down. The knee-jerk response is to immediately turn to the negatives. Gone one are the social gatherings centered around the pub, restaurant or dinner party table. The social side of the business trip, event or conference are suddenly distant memories from a bygone era. But supposing we could harness the power of enforced change to transform our own health and well-being for the better in ways that we couldn’t possibly have imagined?

Two years ago I was lamenting yet another failed Dry January, and wondering if I was simply one of those people that was incapable of any kind of positive habit change. At this point I had absolutely no idea that I was days away from embarking on the biggest positive physical and mental changes of my life. I am now absolutely certain that the positive habit changes I made then have provided me with a set of mental tools to assist dealing with the unprecedented times we are now in as well as the challenges to be faced going forward. 

Looking back on the whole process dispassionately, I am now able to analyse how, with relative ease, how I managed to do something that would not only have seemed impossible immediately prior to stopping, but actually undesirable to me. After all, my drinking habit didn’t have any glaring negative social or medical impact. Indeed, don’t we regard those early doors glasses of wine, ‘social’ cigarettes, unwinding spliffs; cakes, burgers and kebabs – as necessary pleasures? Aren’t they our means to calm down and relax in times of stress and just make life just that little bit better? This, I have discovered is all an illusion. It’s the fake news our subconscious habit-inhabiting selves tell our conscious mind in order to preserve the status quo of our existence. They’re our adult security blankets. It’s not so much the manifestation of our habit that gives us the fix, it’s the process of habit itself. However, while the very nature of habit can prevent us from giving up bad ones, its power – if embraced by the conscious mind and turned into action – can change our lives for the better in whatever direction we choose to take it.

Now this might not sound like a Nobel prize winning revelation, but the real point is that most of us live our lives at the mercy of the habits we have more often than not, accidentally or unconsciously accumulated. That’s the concept that quitting booze has empowered me with and I feel like I’ve found the elixir of life itself. Getting to grips with the power of habit has not only been central to my success in giving up a near-on-daily alcohol habit, but has been pivotal in shaping everything I’ve done since. While stopping drinking was undoubtedly the catalyst for triggering the chain of events that has changed life for the better in ways that I couldn’t possibly imagine, it has been my subsequent focusing on the psychology of habit, and the associated impact of repetition that has really been responsible for the positive trajectory.

To help me through the transition from habitual drinker to T-totaler I started to dwell almost obsessively on the concept of human habit: bad, good, small, major – even seemingly insignificant little ones that proliferate our waking hours and infiltrate every aspect of our deeds, thoughts and actions. Very much like meditational practice will tell you to observe physical and mental feelings with detached acknowledgment, free of emotional tie, in order to lessen their negative impact. The more I thought about it, the more I was able to be dispassionate – analysing to see if habit could be consciously manipulated for a greater good. If we stop for a moment to think about it, nearly every single habit we have, benign or otherwise, began either accidentally, sub-consciously or through a process of repetition intended at the time to be temporary. After all, how many of us, when we smoke for the very first time, plan on it being a life-long habit? Given that our subconscious, ingrained habits are dictating our daily actions, that means we are not really in control of a huge proportion of our day-to-day lives.

The problem with stopping any habit – or even starting a good one such as exercise or improved diet, or no longer chasing material gains – is that we regard it as deprivation or discomfort: physical or emotional pain that must be endured like some kind of martyrdom for an abstract greater good. Once we understand that this is an illusion which is the psychological manifestation of a habit, we are essentially freed of its shackles – free to start and stop habits at will in order to propel our plans and ideas forwards with thrilling abandon.

As I embarked on the gargantuan task of habit change, I became increasingly fascinated by it as a concept that has possibly a greater impact on the course our lives take than any other single factor. The harnessing of the power of habit has led me to some momentous life decisions that would previously have seemed too uncomfortable or impossible – such as becoming vegan, training for a marathon and propelling myself into campaigning with a verve I thought had disappeared with age a long time ago. But instead of seeing actions as difficult, depriving or uncomfortable, I’ve simply regarded them pragmatically, trusting that the subsequent process of habit formation will take care of the rest.

However, just because we’ve got our head around the psychology doesn’t mean we’re not going to need a modicum of self discipline. A 2009 study published in the European Journal of Social Psychology says it takes an average of sixty six days for a new behaviour to become automatic. So don’t think you’re home and dry after just four measly weeks. Understanding the process of this transition is crucial, and a few props may just make the difference between success and failure . If it’s quitting booze, zero or low alcohol beers these days are a million miles from the unpalatable stuff that was Kaliber. These tasty brews allowed me to enjoy everything from pub lunch meetings to long night dinner parties, and without any of the down side. If it’s chocolate, cake or ice cream, you can now make delicious, guilt free versions of them all through a dizzying variety of top notch plant-based food bloggers.

As of today, at fifty six years old and almost two years after initiating my first habit change, my diet is now whole food, plant-based athlete rather than fat-fuelled feral snacker. My metabolic age is that of a healthy individual fifteen years my junior. I’ve  been able to quit the statins I’ve been on for the last fifteen years; my blood pressure has dropped from prehypertension to completely normal – no small feat for an ex ‘social’ smoker, pot smoker, and fast food lover. My productivity, energy, motivation and crucially, peace of mind are better than at any other stage of my life to date. Furthermore, these changes have given me an awareness of the impact of our daily consumption habits on our world as a whole. If nothing else, just try one change today – whether it be giving up a negative one, beginning a positive or swapping bad for good. You never know where it may take you.

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