I read something in my early 20s: if a smoker quits smoking by the age of 25, they can reverse the damage done to their lungs and heart as if nothing had ever happened. Liked they’d never smoked at all.
Twenty-five seemed like a fine line in the sand. “I’ll quit then,” I thought.
I actually have no idea if the thing I read was true or not. It doesn’t actually matter for this story – although I imagine the truth won’t be as clear cut as that statement. Nothing ever really is.
But there I was, 24, making the most of my last year as the quitting line approached.
When 25 rolled around, I did quit. Or, that’s what I told myself.
Only, anytime I saw a friend who smoked, or went to a pub, or on holiday, I’d smoke again. I literally couldn’t imagine a world were I could just sit outside in the sun without smoking. What would holidays be like without this perfect excuse to take a break.
That was actually the reason I started in the first place. I worked in this wonderfully grimey little club in Soho called Ghetto. It was behind the famous (and now extinct) Astoria, down what we affectionately dubbed “Piss Alley”.
I realised my co-workers were allowed to take breaks periodically through the night, to just go stand outside for a fag and have a chat and get some air. I wanted in on the action. Five to 10 minutes of just doing something that wasn’t serving downstairs in the very hot, very loud dance room.
Smoking was about having a break. Relaxing. Getting away from whatever I was doing – or feeling – just for a minute.
So come 25 and I tried to stop; but I didn’t change my environment. And it turned out to be harder than I thought.
That’s because habits are contextual. We do certain things because they’re intrinsically linked to particular places and people and feelings. To particular patterns.
I ended up getting an e-cigarette. This little grey stick with a blue light. Something to replace the habit, whilst actually still giving my hands a similar task in holding it. Something to puff on outside pubs and in gardens that was actually a fine alternative. Unless I was drinking.
So I ended up just not drinking anymore. Stopped going to pubs or drinking with friends. And once I was out of all the associated environments, I was able to actually stop. It probably took a year. I ended up not drinking at all for maybe two.
Five ish years later, if I’m feeling really anxious and I can smell someone else smoking, I still have that sense of wanting one. And if I’m having a panic attack, I don’t even need to see/smell someone smoking to find myself thinking about wanting one. Not had one though.
Some habits are so intrinsically linked to certain situations that the only way to change behaviours is to also change your identity.
I had to stop being someone who was trying to quit. And become someone who didn’t smoke (and who also didn’t drink).
Behaviour change is identity change. It’s environment change. It’s social change. Often a whole series of other changes need to accompany the main change to make it stick.
This is why it’s so hard to build new habits – and even harder to break bad ones.
It’s also one of the reasons it’s so much easier to get into a new habit when you’re out of your normal environment. Like when you’re on holiday and suddenly you can read every day or meditate every day, when at home you can’t stick to it at all.
And that’s also why now is a pretty good time to make some habit changes, thinking about the things you want to do and the person you want to be, so when lockdown ends, you have a bit of a framework in place to keep it going.
Why habits matter
Our life up until this moment is the sum of our habits to this point. Our body is the result of our diet and exercise and health habits. Our houses are the result of our buying and hoarding and cleaning and DIY habits. Our friends of our social habits. Our finances of our spending habits.
And sure, look, there are also genetic and socio-economic factors at play with all of those things. But you can’t control those.
You can control your choices though. Your choices are probably the only things in life you can control. And for sure not everybody will get to choose between the same choices. But you can still make choices based on whatver your options are.
Take responsibility for your choices. Nobody else is going to do it for you.
Practical advice for making a habit stick
Start really small.
Setting your sights too high from the get-go is setting yourself up to crash and burn.
Want to meditate for 30 mins a day? Start with one minute.
Want to get strong? Start with one push up or squat.
Want to run a marathon? Start by running for 60s.
If you go straight into the BIG STUFF, it’ll be too overwhelming. For most people, if a goal or challenge seems to big to be possible, they’ll give up.
Now, there are some people who are really good at looking at a hard thing and being so excited by the challenge that they can just get on with it and put the work in and be great champions of the world.
For everyone else, you need a structured plan.
Think about where you want to be, then think about the things you need to do to get there, and reverse engineer the plan. Then just focus on doing tiny manageable amounts, focussing on just being a tiny bit better each time.
Increase the habit in TINY increments
This is about the art of being just 1% better. James Clear talks about this in his book Atomic Habits. It’s about tiny wins, tiny daily improvements. It’s about how the small stuff adds up.
1% improvements add up fast.
And as your motivation and skill increases over time, so does your will to keep going.
Break bigger chunks into smaller chunks
Making it easy is still the pinnacle principle. If you’re trying to get to 50 push ups a day, start small – then when you can do quite a big chunk in a row, break it up into two smaller sets.
It’s less intimidating this way.
Doing two sets of 10 seems more manageable than 20 in a row.
Doing five sets of 10 seems more manageable than 50 in a row.
By building up gradually, you make the habit easier to stick too. No shocks to the system.
Never miss twice
This is another idea from James Clear or never letting yourself go too long not doing the habits. Missing one day doesn’t matter. One day is nothing in the grand scheme of things. Don’t get worked up about it either way.
But it’s all the ones together that matter. So just get back on it straight away and you’re still doing great.
You’re not going to be perfect everyday. It’s unrealistic. But if you plan failure into a contingency plan, then it’s not really failure. And it’s not going to throw you off course.
Play the long game
Your habits now will shape your future. You have to be patient. Often when you’re looking at the success of someone else, you’re looking at them years into the process.
You need to be patient. Be consistent. Just keep doing what you’re doing day by day.
There’s no shortcut to success. That’s not how this works.
Would you like to listen to me speak more about breaking bad habits and building new ones? Check out this short < 20 min podcast.
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