Is it me or has January felt like it's been 659 days long? We’ve been living off freezer tapas (all that stuff in the back of the freezer you forgot you had), and this payday felt like the most exciting thing to ever happen in the history of the world.
January is tough.
It's dark and cold.
It's financially a stretch.
Self assessment tax time if you're self employed.
Often haven't been paid for 5 weeks if you're employed.
If this were not bad enough, we decided in our post Christmas carb-coma phase to give up stuff we love!
Giving up lying in bed each morning to get to the gym?
Giving up soda in favour of water?
Giving up mid week drinking or booze altogether if you’ve been participating in Dry January?
Giving up meat and trying out Veganuary?
Giving up smoking?
Giving up chocolate?
Giving up chocolate in February as part of the De-Chox initiative?
There’s a lot we tend to give up at this time of year. So while it’s dark and depressing outside, the bank balance is bare and your motivation is waning, how can you be successful when trying to give up bad habits?
1. Work out the action you usually perform BEFORE the bad habit
What usually happens immediately before you reach for the wine glass, or the packet of cigarettes, or go to break off a block of cheese from the fridge?
Working out the habit/action/behaviour or thought process that immediately precedes the ‘bad’ habit or the thing you want to give up is key.
I was speaking to my cousin about this the other day. She’s trying to give up drinking wine in the week. I asked her what the preceding behaviour or thought was.
She said as she puts her key in the door, she always anticipates getting a glass of wine and goes straight to the fridge, with her coat still on, gets the wine, gets a glass, pours, sips, says “ahhh” and THEN takes her coat off.
My prescription for this and to change the routine and comfort zone of her behaviour and thought processes was to suggest the following;
When she puts her key in the door, take three deep breaths and ask if she wants wine because she needs it, deserves it, or because this is just out of habit.
When she walks through the door, walk in backwards. This sounds utterly bonkers but it is about breaking the behaviours that happen before the bad habit.
Once she’s walked in backwards and shut the door, she needs to hang up her coat.
Once she goes in the kitchen and before opening the fridge, repeat the three deep breaths and ask if she really needs it.
2. Work out the environment in which you perform your bad habits
How your environment is set up often governs your bad habits. If you want to start eating less junk and eat more fresh fruit, having your fruit tucked away in the salad drawer of your fridge means out of sight out of mind.
If you get yourself a big fruit bowl and have it on display, you’re more likely to have this in view and go for the fruit a little more often.
If you always drink wine after work because you drive past the liquor store on your way home, could you drive another route home avoiding the store and the temptation?
If you’re cutting down on beer but you always meet your buddies in a bar for a beer watching the football, could you watch it elsewhere? Someone’s home and minus the booze? Harder to stay alcohol free in a dimly lit bar surrounded by booze than in the comfort of a nice warm home.
If you struggle to get out of bed in a morning because it is January and it’s cold (to all our friends and readers in the Southern Hemisphere - hope you’re enjoying the Summer!) then can you combat the temptation to snooze by charging your phone in another room? Could you lay out a sweater or dressing gown next to your phone so you can put it on as soon as the alarm goes off and you’re less likely to crawl back into your warm bed? I do this one. It works a dream for me!
If you keep snacking on candy, nuts, cookies and chocolate is it because these foods are too readily available? Is it too easy to open a cupboard, or a drawer and they’re just there?
Have you ever tried portioning these items into smaller sandwich bags and tying the ends? I do this for portion control and it just makes it that little bit more difficult for me to keep mindlessly eating.
Sometimes I’ll also put the individual sandwich bags of portioned goodies in a lunch box with clip down sides. This acts as a way for me to consciously think about my snacking. Having to unclip all four sides to get in the box gives me a moment to think “Do I really want and need this?”. Then having to unpick the tied bags gives me an extra opportunity to think. When I do eat them, I know I absolutely want them and I’m not reaching for them absentmindedly out of habit.
Sometimes even a place can be the issue. I find it very difficult to stop for diesel and not emerge from the gas station without candy and crisps. Petrol stations are my trigger places. In the 20 years I have been driving it has become a bad habit of mine to stop for fuel and then leave with ‘junk’ food. Just being aware of this and as I’m filling my car up I’ve tried to form a new habit of saying to myself “I am filling up my car and my car only. I don’t not need to fill up myself!”.
Alternatively, I do have a local fuel station that is unmanned and has no shop. You pay at the pump with your card so I’ve started to try refuel the car there to avoid the temptation of junk food.
3. Remove the bad habits altogether
This is so annoyingly simple but often quite hard to do. I’ve just thrown away a leftover box of crackers into the bin. I don’t even like crackers but I found myself feeling stressed this week and turning to snacking for comfort. I’d eaten one too many of the crackers before declaring enough is enough and threw them away. Temptation completely gone.
If you’re trying to give up certain foods or alcohol can you stop buying them altogether? I know sometimes this may affect your family and what they eat but if it is so important to you, could you ask them for their support?
If it’s crisp cool white wine you find yourself reaching for, could you put it in a cupboard and keep it at room temperature? The act of having to let it cool in the fridge might take the urge to drink away.
If you really can’t stop buying chocolate and crisps (because of the kids) can you keep them stocked high and out of reach/sight. You’re more likely to eat them if they’re staring at you every time you open the cupboard. You might just forget about them if they’re tucked away.
If you know that sitting up until the early hours and binge watching the latest TV series is doing nothing for your sleep, why not use a plug timer? Plug the TV into a mechanical or digital timer. Set it to go off and therefore turn off the TV at a set time each night. That way you know you won't go past say 11pm in your binge watching.
4. Take it one day at a time
It’s super easy to think you want to give up a habit for a set amount of time or altogether. Sometimes this can prove overwhelming as you look too far ahead into the future. You give up before you have even started.
Any 12 step programme like Alcoholics Anonymous or Overeaters Anonymous has the tagline “One day at a time” - for good reason. It has been proved as the best method for addictive behaviour to take it one day at a time. From the moment you wake up to the moment you go to bed. Living in the present moment keeps you more conscious in your behaviour without fearing about the longevity of your abstinence.
Taking it one day at a time just feels more easy to manage.
If you’re trying to override a bad habit or introduce some new healthy habits into your life well done. Healthy habits can sometimes feel like a chore but they have the power to make us feel less stressed, more in control, happier and of course healthier.
A lot of the above is common sense and I don't want to insult your intelligence by sharing techniques so simple and easy. The truth is we find them hard to put into practice because it goes against our everyday grain. We often perform our daily habits without thinking.
For example, when you go to put your shoes on in a morning, do you always put the same shoe on first? Left or right foot? Most people will realise they put the same shoe on first day in day out without thinking about it.
When you go to put a t-shirt or sweater on, what do you do first? Over your head? Left arm? Right arm? You will most certainly do this in the same order every time.
When you go to put your coat on, do you do the left arm or the right arm first?
Think about it! These are things we do absentmindedly and mechanically without thinking every day. These are habits ingrained deep within us.
Try doing the opposite with any of the above and it feels super weird and alien. Do it for long enough and whereas you may have always put the right shoe on first in the past, now you’ll be able to put the left one on first. It just takes consistent repetition to get your brain into a new comfort zone and a new habit.
Good luck with your own habits this winter. It’s a tough time of year to make changes but it is so rewarding when you do.
As ever, if you’re looking for more support and accountability then come join in the conversation over on the Self Discipline group on Facebook.
Gemma Ray is a BBC radio presenter, best selling author, marketing specialist and always the most inappropriate person in a WhatsApp chat. She should probably establish the first chapter of Oversharers Anonymous and is also currently trying to give up swearing.
Catch Gemma on Grin & Tonic on BBC Radio Lancashire, Sundays 4-6pm or listen again on BBC Sounds here.
Click here to purchase Gemma's debut book, Self Discipline.