When I began my journey to quit smoking and drinking five years ago, I felt like the anchor that tethered my sense of self to the Earth had been violently yanked out from the sea bottom and hurled into outer space. There I was, drifting through the atmosphere, angry, nauseous and directionless. Smoking and drinking had been a ritual for many years, my bookends to each day. As soon as I woke up, I’d pour myself a cup of coffee and sit on my patio stoop in my pajamas with a pack of cigarettes and a stinky glass ashtray. On my morning walk to the train, I’d puff away, rushing to finish before I reached the platform. After work was done, I could officially relax when I poured my first drink around 7pm— almost always a glass of wine in my kitchen or at a neighborhood bar. My pack of cigarettes would be emptied between the first glass and the last, and I’d usually drag myself to the convenience store just before bedtime to buy another pack for the next morning. Day in and day out, these were the habits that set the pulse of my life. Deciding to give it all up was like losing both my identity and my oxygen. There were times when I just swung there, suffocating in space. The deprivation was overwhelming.
In those first few raw weeks, I began to figure out that running around the block whenever I wanted to smoke or drink would alleviate some of the physical and mental discomfort I was experiencing. This was my personal introduction to the concept of “habit substitution,” one of the primary techniques of behavior modification. Of course, I didn’t know that at the time. All I knew was that running around the block was molding me into an actual runner (and eventually, a marathoner), and that runners generally don’t smoke and drink to excess, and that I was starting to feel better. By substituting a bad habit with one that is healthier or more positive, it's very difficult to continue to embrace the negative behavior. Can you imagine crossing the finish line with a cigarette in one hand and a bottle of wine in the other? Or racing with an ashtray mouth and a hangover? Not going to happen.
When it comes to breaking habits, too many well-intentioned people dole out the same tired advice about “willpower” and “white knuckling it” and “toughening up.” For many of us, deprivation is just a short cut to another failed attempt. Substitution, however, has shown success across all types of habits. If you’re looking to change your behavior and in essence, your life (after all, we are our habits), here are a few tips to get you started:
- Divert yourself from your bad habit by substituting it for a more positive one that is somewhat similar in execution, movement or sensation. Smoking was my primary bad habit, and it often triggered my urge to drink. The two eventually went hand in hand. With both, I was inhaling deeply, engaged in movement and allowed some quiet time to explore my mind. I’m a fidgety, high-energy person, and smoking and drinking gave me something to do. Similarly, running gets me in touch with my breath while burning off excess energy, and giving me time to be alone with my thoughts. In “The Power of Habit,” author Charles Duhigg writes that “to change an old habit you must address an old craving. You have to keep the same cues and rewards as before, and feed the craving by inserting a new routine.” So, if you eat habitually after work, you may wish to try investing in a juicer and making yourself a fresh squeezed, tasty juice to indulge in instead. If you’re snacking at your office desk to cope with stress, consider doing a quick set of pushups whenever the urge strikes.
- Find a community that embraces your new habit and join them! If you’ve decided to take up running, for instance, there are many runners groups from beginner to advanced levels sprinkled across Singapore. Here’s a list to get you started. If dancing is more your speed, take up some classes to keep yourself on track and make supportive new friends. There are groups for any positive habit these days, whether it be weightlifting, knitting, swimming, meditation, juicing, rock climbing or even parachuting. If you're worried about being new and not knowing what you're doing, remember that EVERYONE starts EVERYTHING they do at the very beginning.
- Be gentle on yourself. If a new behavior doesn’t stick, try something else. There’s no reason to beat yourself up. Changing bad habits takes time. It took me a full year between deciding to quit smoking and drinking and actually quitting smoking and drinking for good. While some people are able to quit their bad habits “cold turkey,” they are in the minority. For most, it requires trial and error, patience, and persistence. Make a creative list of some habits you’d like to adopt and activities you’d be interested in trying. You never know what you might become!
Have a question or comment about habits? I'd love to hear from you! Leave your thoughts in the comments section.