December is my month for planning the New Year. It’s a good way for me to stay home and avoid the cold weather, bad traffic, and holiday earworms. I have spent four straight days with the words ‘simply having a wonderful Christmastime’ going through my head on a constant loop. By November 30 I was already heartily sick of jingle bells and anything red, green, or twinkly. Why people are so worked up about Christmas, when they could be hyped up about the New Year instead, is beyond me! The New Year: a fresh start, a built-in milestone, a natural marker for strategic planning, wishing, and dreaming.
There are two parts to developing a vision and forming resolutions. One is to vividly picture what we want in life. What emotions do we want to experience more often or more deeply? What creative projects do we want to bring into being? What do we want in our personal environment? What do we want for our relationships, our bodies, our finances, our moods? What skills do we want to learn? What contributions do we want to make to this world? This side of planning is what I think of as the gas pedal.
The other part of this planning process is what I think of as the brakes. Bad habits. Negative tendencies. Things we want to release or stop doing. Where do we want closure? What do we want to put behind us? What are we tired of doing to ourselves? Where is the fear? Where is the anxiety? Where is the boredom? Where is the depression? What no longer fits? What would we wish away, if all we had to do was to snap our fingers and banish it forever? How are we holding ourselves back?
Coming back to the car analogy, it’s obvious that taking your foot off the brakes can get you farther ahead, faster, than pressing harder on the gas pedal. If you’re parked in the right spot, simply easing off that brake may allow you to coast quite a ways.
I analyzed my eating habits and quit doing the most destructive, ineffective ones. This helped me lose the weight that exercising more and eating more healthy foods did not.
I went on a spending freeze while paying off my consumer debt. This got me to financial solvency more quickly than I was able to start earning a higher income.
I cleared my clutter. This got me to a clean, organized home more quickly than trying to “organize” the excess stuff.
What is a bad habit, exactly? The idea correlates with the concept of sin, this idea that certain activities are BAD and that if we do them, we are BAD PEOPLE. Murder? That’s bad. Don’t murder anyone or that will definitely make you a bad person. You heard it here first. Most things, though, are not particularly moral issues. Morally judging ourselves for our weak spots tends to drain the energy we need to make positive change. It catches us in a loop of fixating on the negative tendency, rather than thinking of positive ways to replace it. We sit and ruminate rather than get up and deal with it in a tangible way.
The most common time we morally judge ourselves is when we are talking about eating goodies or treats. “Ooh, I was BAD.” “Ooh, this is decadent.” We are bad and naughty when we eat stuff we really, really like to taste. THIS NEVER WORKS. Thinking of food and body fat in moral terms is the short route to weird emotional eating patterns. I prefer to think of it in terms of EFFECTIVE and INEFFECTIVE. Did it work, or did it not work? Does it have adequate micronutrients, or does it not have adequate micronutrients? Is it nourishing my body or merely stimulating my tongue? Is it a value-add or is it stressing my organs? Is eating ‘bad’ and ‘naughty’ food the only time I really enjoy myself or feel lit up by life?
Food is just one example of something we turn to as a warped coping strategy. Almost everything we do when we are out of balance or feeling emotionally needy tends to have negative impacts on our lives, both in the short and long term. We WANT. We feel like we NEED. We are empty, numb, bored, sad, lonely, in pain. Sometimes we step outside ourselves and let our bodies or our mouths take over. That’s when we start putting things in our mouths on autopilot; that’s when we let cascades of negative words spill out onto ourselves and others. We can’t seem to pull together the inner resources to control our behaviors, our thoughts, our actions. The aftermath – damaged relationships, mess, financial issues, scary health metrics – can quickly and easily add to the negativity that started the whole process. Downward spiral, here we go.
One problem is thinking of things in moral terms. Another is confusing willpower, motivation, and self-discipline. I’ve written about this many times, and I continue to believe that WILLPOWER AND MOTIVATION DO NOT EXIST. Unicorns, maybe. Willpower, no. Motivation, no. Willpower only lasts for about 15 seconds, exactly long enough to remind oneself to keep one’s mouth shut and not say that destructive thing. It lasts long enough to push away a dish or to stand up or to tie one’s running shoes. Willpower is a pinky finger when what we need is a bicep. Motivation? Give me a break. Motivation is what people think is going on when they watch other people do things that they convinced themselves to do. You may “hate running,” but you’ll give it everything you have if you’re running after a child who is about to step into traffic. We can always find the ‘motivation’ to spend money on things we want to buy, to get up and procure sugar when we want to taste it, to watch shows we want to watch, to play games we want to play. We do an astonishingly efficient job at taking action to do whatever we want, whenever we want. We find the time. What is missing is a story to tell ourselves about wanting other things, things that take discipline and planning and hard work and sometimes sacrifice.
Self-discipline is not sexy. Nobody in my hearing has ever said “I wish I had more self-discipline.” This is because we know that self-discipline involves EFFORT. There may be sweat or blisters involved. When you really put your back into something, it tends to result in awkward facial expressions. I sometimes stick my tongue out or make grunting sounds when I am exerting myself in important ways. There don’t tend to be many selfies taken of people who are doing self-discipline. We put such a negative spin on it, we call it “adulting” and talk freely of how we’d rather spend our lives in our pajamas than “adult.”
Personally, I love adulting. I’m the boss of my life and it pays well. I have a strong marriage because I have the self-discipline not to be rude to my husband when I’m frustrated with stuff. I have the self-discipline to apologize and take ownership when I have been selfish, unfair, inconsiderate, or careless. I have a great credit score because I have been self-disciplined about following a budget and diligent in paying my bills. I have a fit, strong body because I have self-discipline in eating and exercising effectively, putting in the miles and the reps even when I’m “too tired.” I eat more cabbage than ice cream, more broccoli than brownies, more kale than crackers, more Brussels sprouts than bagels. I have a clean, organized house because I do chores every day. I always pick up after myself every time I leave a room, and I set aside the time to clean up after myself each day I work on a project. Self-discipline is a mental habit that becomes stronger with focus and attention, and this self-discipline leads inexorably to better and better results in life.
The fun stuff we do is more fun when we’ve applied self-discipline to it. We have more fun traveling because we are disciplined about how we plan, how we pack, and how we save money. The leftover change from budgeting our expenses on groceries, utility bills, and random small items can add up to impressive amounts over a year; amounts we barely notice wasting each day we definitely notice when they are going toward event tickets or a room upgrade. We can do more fun things with fitter, stronger bodies, such as having the physical capacity to hike to special places or walk the Vegas Strip day and night without getting tired. We avoid annoying each other the majority of the time, because we manage the small details and watch for how our words, actions, and belongings impact one another. Which is better? Waking up fit, solvent, and organized next to someone who likes having you around and finds you attractive? Or waking up in pain and poor health, broke, in debt, in a dirty house, next to someone who is justifiably irritated with you? It’s not genetics or personality or fate that makes the difference here – it’s character, which is largely composed of behavior, which is largely composed of self-discipline or the lack thereof.
Bad habits are things we do that lead to poor outcomes. They are often unexamined tendencies. Even more often, they are our preferred activities. The bad habit that is sucking all the juice out of our lives is often our absolute favorite thing, the very last thing we would ever want to give up. We call on morality again. I’m a good person and I DESERVE JUST THIS ONE THING. We frame it in terms of loss. We can’t bear to contemplate giving it up. We don’t want to say goodbye.
Bad habits can go away on their own, wafting off into the ether when we become consumed with passion for something else. Bad habits often go away when we relocate, get new jobs, or become parents. Contrary to popular belief, the vast majority of substance abusers quit on their own, because they decide to, or because they decide to make some other positive change. It is not just possible, but standard, for someone to have a moment of clarity, to make a decision. ENOUGH OF THAT or I’M DONE or TIME TO DO IT or STOPPING NOW.
Let’s reframe some common ‘bad habits’ and look at what would be desirable instead.
I’m BAD when I overeat or eat the “wrong” things / I want to nourish my body with healing foods.
I watch too much TV or game too much / I want to explore a true, life-consuming passion.
I have an ADDICTIVE PERSONALITY / I am fine and normal and I want some better ideas of things to do.
I have bad taste in romantic partners / I am ready to meet someone wonderful, whom I will love with everything I have, and if I have to wait a while, it will be worth it.
I’m bad with money / I want to explore my natural interest in money and bring in more.
I hate my job / I want to contribute my considerable gifts to an endeavor that inspires me and feels worth it.
I need to “get organized” / I want a home environment that is peaceful and comforting and lives up to my aesthetic standards.
You’re not bad. You’re normal. Bad habits are the norm. The question is, do you want to be ordinary? Ordinary is okay. It’s fine. Your “bad habits” are likely no worse than anyone else’s, unless you are a serial hammer murderer, in which case you have the power to turn yourself in, sell your memoir, and use the royalties to fund a children’s charity or something. All you have to do is to look inside yourself, meet your own eyes, and say, “I am ready for something better.”
I've been working with chronic disorganization, squalor, and hoarding for over 20 years. I'm also a marathon runner who was diagnosed with fibromyalgia and thyroid disease 17 years ago.