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Bad Habits and How to Break Them

Thursday, January 04, 2018

Bad habits exist in all our lives, because the behavior is rewarding in some way. I learned this lesson back in high school when Friday night street racing became my favorite activity. My car was a blue beauty, a '68 fastback Mustang with a 351 under the hood. It generated 300 horsepower and handled some pretty tough competition.

The reward for this particular bad habit was my need for speed. Street racing was fun for a while, until I began counting the cost. Speeding violations, gas and car repairs were draining my bank account in no small way. On top of schoolwork, leadership activities, and playing three sports a year, I was working evenings and weekends to support my spendy and dangerous racing habit!

It may not sound that bad to you, but everyone’s habits look a bit different. As leaders, it is especially important to recognize our own shortfalls and willingness to test boundaries. Our weaknesses reflect on the people we lead and serve. We want them to thrive on our behalf, not suffer!

Before we jump into the reasons why we form bad habits, it’s important to understand the patterns that get us there in the first place. Author Charles Duhigg does an excellent job outlining the anatomy of a bad habit in three simple parts: Cue, Reward, and Routine.

The Cue: A trigger that moves you toward the habit.
The Reward: The craving your bad habit is satisfying. 
The Routine: A learned pattern that will deliver the bad habit’s reward unless a new routine is introduced.

It’s important to understand how many of our bad habits begin with good intentions. Maybe we are stressed out from work and looking for relaxation from the routine of life. But when we take shortcuts— like watching TV or playing some video games to get some downtime instead of hitting the gym to release much-needed endorphins—we pay the price in weight gain, disruptive sleep patterns and lost time with our family members.

While we may have good intentions, like relaxation and stress relief, we must see the habit for what it truly is— a destructive roadblock in on the path to wellness and healthier relationships. Understanding our cues takes time, and often we’re running too fast as leaders to evaluate our efforts and see areas of ineffectiveness.

Take time to map out what cues your bad habit. Is it fatigue, a need to relieve stress, arguments at home, anxiety or depression, a lack of self-discipline or accountability, an insecurity that’s haunting you from the past?

Write down what you think it is.

Now, what is the reward? What are you getting out of this behavior to eliminate stress or anxiety? Is it a feeling of calm, escape, power, achievement or pride? Identify what it is you are gaining, and be honest with yourself. It will lead you to the right answer which is: “What newer, healthier routine can I replace this bad habit with to earn a better reward?”

For the Netflix couch-sitter, it is exercise. Though you may not believe it, exercise helps the body relax and stimulates the growth of new nerve cells in the brain. Studies also lead us to believe that those who exercise sleep much better than those who don’t.

For the former street racer like myself, the replacement routine is a paddle board on the river or a mountain bike with friends to achieve healthier, safer endorphins than I got from racing my car.

For the emotional eater, maybe engaging in a favorite hobby or relearning something you once enjoyed doing—like playing the guitar or working in the yard —could give a richer experience of joy than getting lost in a virtual reality game.

What Now?

When you've identified your bad habit, whether it's overeating, poor communication skills, anger outbursts, or laziness, you can defeat it! This victory is won in replacing a bad habit with a good one. Remember, it's all about the reward! Focus your energy on replacing bad habits with good routines. You’ll earn a better reward from abandoning your old ways.

It may be as simple as increased energy, peace at home, stronger relationships, or simply fitting into your clothes better. But nothing is achieved without action steps! Invest a few minutes in building your plan to overcome bad habits. List the bad habits in your life, the good routines that are replacing them, and the action steps needed to get there.

By learning to identify your bad habits and how to beat them, you are already on your way to achieving greater excellence in your life and leadership.

To healthier, greater excellence,
Coach Greg

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