Are all habits bad?

So many books have been written about building habits. Tiny moves in a different direction towards changing a behaviour. Some advocate large transformation steps, others smaller incremental ones. I’ve read them all, tried them all but I’m pretty sure I’m a routine guy, not a habit guy. Is there a difference?

Habits have always been a negative thing that I’m doing. As a kid I had a habit of sucking my thumb (just until my late teens mind you). I had a habit of skipping classes in high school. I had a smoking habit. I had a habit of drinking too much coffee, eating too many bags of chips. Habits were bad.

Habits are always things that I seem to want to quit so I read all those books and what I pulled from them was mostly around building routines. Routines lead to habit change so the emphasis for me was always on building routines around everything I do.

When I was young and stupid I smoked cigarettes. It’s hard to quit that habit so I looked for an easy routine change that would help. There isn’t one by the way. I settled on a small computerized pocket aide called Lifesign. It reoriented my smoking pattern and then gradually, almost imperceptibly, reduced the number of cigarettes that I smoked in a day until 45 days after I started using the machine I had kicked the habit. By forcing me to change my routine around smoking I was able to quit.

The problem with habits is that the perception is you need to work at something for between 14-21 days until that thing becomes a habit. I don’t know if that is true but having something just become a habit isn’t enough to keep it a habit. Just doing it for that long does not mean it will stick. Building a routine gives it a chance. Although, come to think of it, it took less time for me to make smoking a habit and probably takes far less time for people to make drugs a habit…Bad habits are absolutely easier to pick up then to shed.

So I’ve given up on the term “habit” and will stick with routines. Habits are dead to me until I start smoking again and pick up hard drugs.

I have an exercise habit. I work out regularly and have since I quit smoking over 20 years ago. It was hard to get into it but I did it through sheer routine building. It starts with timing of when to go to the gym. The most efficient for me is first thing in the morning — early — so routine #1 is to get up early. That has cascading effects on what I do the night before. My family is a notoriously late night family so I had to break that habit with a new routine of getting to bed relatively early. “Calling it quits early” as my mother would say as would get to bed at a decent time. To do this I had to fight the habit of coffee after dinner, TV shows after 10pm and reading in bed until all hours. I had to kill 30 habits in order to make myself fit. All that before I even made it to the gym!

Now my gym routine is easy. I lay out my gym clothes on a chair next to my bed the night before so when I wake up I immediately get dressed in them and I’m committed and in the right frame of mind. It is now automatic. I’m up, downstairs and on my way to the gym within minutes of waking. It is as much of a routine as breathing for me now. Sometimes I don’t even remember doing it. That’s when you know it is a routine.

I approach much of my day like this. It takes a little forethought but it is deliberate thinking that builds routine.

I’ve recently taken up daily writing and added it to my morning routine. I prep the night before by setting up my computer so it is waiting for me in my writing spot. Now when I wake up, get dressed in my gym clothes and head downstairs, I grab a cup of coffee, and sit down to write for 30 minutes with headphones on, cancelling the outside world. I get 1000 words done and then I’m gone to the gym.

It isn’t magic but it does require preparation and commitment to the process.

I really began to understand routine when I had kids and, oddly enough, a dog. Both require strict routines in order to create order. I had the added challenge of having twins so without routine there is just absolute chaos. There was routine around feeding, changing and sleeping for the kids (oh and keeping them ALIVE). Walking, discipline and pack rules for the dog. The kids forced me to be patient about building routines for them and us as a family. The dog, well, she trained me pretty well to adhere to her routines…

If you want to understand why we humans do what we do and dive deep into the psychology of change to break and create habits that’s your call. That’s not habit change. No amount of book learning gave me motivation or the tools to change habits. It seems to me that the books I read were coping mechanisms for me to hold on to the bad habits a little while longer — I had to learn what the deep seated psychosis was that made me do what I do. I stalled, read more books, stalled, read more books. I did this until I realized that the books wouldn’t give me the answers I needed and I was on my own to do it or not.

Some routines will work for you — other won’t. That’s just reality. Don’t let your bad habit of reading books on habits stop you from building better routines for yourself.

Maybe the first routine you should build is how to put the books down…