Habits – and breaking ones that no longer serve us.

It’s that time of year again when we try to form new habits.  This got me thinking about habits in general and specifically about breaking old habits that no longer serve us.

Let me tell you a story about Lily…

Every morning, on her way to work, Lily would call by her local newsagent and buy her newspaper – and she would also buy a small bar of chocolate, to eat during her workday. Lily had been doing this for so long now that she can’t remember when she stopped asking for the chocolate.  She simply placed it on the newspaper, shared some pleasantries with the newsagent, paid and left.

Recently, Lily decided that she would like to break this habit – to no longer buy the chocolate every day. So she went to the newsagent and for the first few days, she left with only her newspaper.  She was particularly happy with herself on the first Wednesday, even when the newsagent asked her if she would like to buy a bar of chocolate, and she simply declined. So far so good.

Then one particularly busy day Lily found herself in work reaching into her bag and taking out a bar of chocolate and eating it.  She had unconsciously (almost on automatic) bought the chocolate at the newsagent that morning.  She decided from then on to be more conscious, more present when she visited the newsagent.  Lily was back on track and was very pleased with herself. Her new plan was working.

Then on another especially busy Monday morning as she left the newsagent, she noticed herself slipping her newspaper and a bar of chocolate into her bag.  She thought, “Okay, well better than eating it in work”.  She felt like her awareness was lagging behind her – why hadn’t she noticed herself reaching for the chocolate in the shop? Rather than getting annoyed, Lily reaffirmed her commitment to be aware of what she was doing.

Over time Lily caught herself in real time, reaching for the bar of chocolate and leaving it.  Her awareness had caught up with her actions and she was able to consciously decide if she wanted to buy the chocolate or not. She had finally broken the habit of automatically doing something without full awareness.

So how did Lily succeed?

  • She brought awareness to her actions.
  • She didn’t give herself a hard time when she bought the bar of chocolate.
  • She started to become aware of the times when she was most likely to act automatically and raised her awareness in these situations.

When breaking a habit, compassionate awareness of ourselves helps us to adjust the actions we wish to change. Getting annoyed and frustrated builds the belief that this is difficult and can cause us to give up. I believe that the more we smile at the moments we “fall off the horse” rather than get annoyed with ourselves, the more this helps us to remain present and conscious of our actions.