About Habits: Lessons Learned from a Spaghetti Western

Kat Van Fossen, Take Control Health Coach

Clint Eastwood’s quest for buried gold in the movie “The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly” was a brutal journey with many barriers. There may be some days where you feel like your journey toward health goals is an internal Civil War. Often there is a battle between the bad habits we are trying to break and the good habits we are trying to create.

Habits are the mindless routines that we build into our days. They become so repetitive that we can do them without thinking.  An example might be your morning routine: wake up, make coffee, brush your teeth, check your email, and grab something quick to eat. Routines (habits) like these become so automatic that we sometimes have to stop and try to remember if we even did them. These habits often develop over the course of your lifetime, and have been done so many times that they are automatic and you can’t remember how or when they even developed. The question is: are they the GOOD, the BAD or the UGLY?

Most of us know which of our habits are not helping us. By nature, we have a tendency to focus on the negative. We can talk all day about the things we are not doing right. If I had a horse for every time, I told myself to make some kind of positive change, I’d be a cowgirl by now!

In order to find the buried treasure in our health, we need to replace the bad habits with good habits. Good habits start by rewiring our brains. We have to train our brains just like we would train our body for an athletic event. To rewire your brain to create new habits, you need to start thinking differently.

Before examining your habits, the first step to start thinking differently is to go deeper than just wanting the change – you need to identify why you want to change. In other words you need to find your “why.” Discovering the why is important because it can help you keep on track. When your why is clear and strong it makes change more manageable and reaching your healthy lifestyle changes easier. The why always needs to be greater than the excuse. For example, my personal “why” for wanting to stay healthy in my 50s, 60s, and beyond is because I want to be an active Grammy. I want to be the Grammy that gets on the floor to play, runs through the park, and bakes cookies, all in an afternoon.

Your why needs to be clear and individualized. It can change over time or change in different seasons of your life. Take time to think about this, dig deep to find out why you want to make changes and build on it.

Now that you’ve identified your why, you can take a look at your habits and identify which ones are good, which ones are bad, and which are ugly.

The Good

Good habits are the ones that bring you success. Think about the times when you were successful, and recall the causes for the positive change. When something goes well and we see success, like a positive change in our weight, we tend to skim over it. Instead, we need to stop, acknowledge the success, and identify what cause and effect made the positive change. We need to go deeper, and dwell on what went right. Take time to figure out the positive formula, and practice it over and over until it becomes second nature.

Use an already established habit as the trigger to remind you to do the new behavior. If you want to drink more water, do it immediately after your brush your teeth or eat breakfast. By attaching new behaviors to existing habits, you make it easier for your brain to habituate the new behavior. Retrain the brain, think positive, look at what went right and the body will follow.

The Bad

Bad habits often develop from the reward trap. If you tell yourself “I deserve it,” this could potentially land you in the negative. At the end of a hard day, I may tell myself that I deserve a glass or two of beer. But if I want to make positive changes to my evening routine, I need to realize it’s not about the beer, it’s about the need to relax and shut my day down a little earlier. Recognizing the need to relax takes beer out of the equation, and moves me closer to the healthiest version of myself. Again, this is retraining your brain to think differently by asking yourself what you need instead what you deserve.

My experience has led me to realize that I really don’t deserve anything, but that I need to listen to my body and figure out what it needs.  The best reward you can give yourself is a positive time out, so put your feet up and just breathe.

And the Ugly

Ugly habits typically come from unwanted surprises and things that are out of our control. Life has a way of getting in the way of our plans and preparation. If you miss a day of completing your habit because of ugly schedules, emergencies, or whatever, don't let that discourage you. In Montana we say, “if you fall off your horse, get right back on.”  The best way to help get back on track is to be proactive instead of reactive with your habits. In fact, try to anticipate possible interruptions to your new habit, and create an alternative plan that will prepare you for success, instead of giving up on the goal.

When things start to unravel, we can also get stuck in the ugly negative talk cycle. The best thing you can do is acknowledge the lapse, stop any negative self-talk, and start back with something simple that can bring you back to the positive habit. The best gift you can give yourself is patience. Retrain your brain from ugly thoughts about yourself, and talk to yourself like you are talking to your best friend.

Finding the Buried Treasure

When it comes to creating new habits, it’s important to break the changes down into small manageable changes. Begin adding these small changes into your routine immediately after an existing habit. Before you know it, the new habit will be part of your lifestyle.

The first few weeks of a new habit are the hardest. If you get discouraged or frustrated, try to slow down and be patient. Continue to be steadfast in taking small, daily actions — adding new ones slowly after 3-5 days. Have faith that if you continue with your new habit, you will make this new behavior automatic in the not-too-distant future.

Be kind to yourself by being positive, replace any ugly negative thoughts with positive thoughts. In “The Good, the Bad and the Ugly,” Blondie says “I'll sleep better knowing my good friend is by my side to protect me.” Your health is your good friend. If you take care of it, it will protect you from health problems and allow you to enjoy the good things in life for a long time to come.

I would like to hear from you. What are your good, bad and ugly habits? Email me at Kathleen@takecontrolmt.com