Breaking Bad (Habits, That Is)

Making Promises To Yourself: A How-To Guide

There was a summer in my teenage days where I dedicated hours to playing video games. Certainly I'd spent a while trudging my way through Final Fantasy VII and Chrono Cross (finishing neither) in traditional gamer style, with my body half buried in a beanbag chair, getting up every few hours only for food or bathroom breaks, but in particular I'm thinking of the one summer I spent playing Dance Dance Revolution.

Anyone aware of pop culture in the mid-2000's probably recognizes the misleading name of this game. As one of the first in "healthy" video games (AKA games that make you move more than your thumbs), DDR had a huge surge of popularity when I was entering high school and a reputation for making fat kids thin. Our now defunct local arcade showcased its DDR machine at its entrance, and the employees were quick to interest curious onlookers with stories of overweight teenagers who had played the game for months and shrunk down to fraction of their former sizes. It was mind boggling how fast those kids could move their feet. The arcade versions ran at about $2.00 for three songs, which you'd "dance" to by stomping on four directional pads at your feet. When the game became available on home consoles, my family quickly acquired the Xbox version, to which I spent an entire two months dedicating my time. Every day I would follow the same routine: get up, eat breakfast, "dance", eat lunch, relax.

Perhaps it was because accomplishing a song on any other level than Easy was a challenge for me, and sparked some kind of competitive-against-myself spirit. Perhaps it was just something to do during my long, mostly solitary summer. Whatever the reason, I playing that game with almost religious fervor. I missed out on a full summer of sunshine. I lost the twenty extra pounds I'd been carrying from gorging myself on peanut butter sandwiches and cereal. I had wicked stamina, suddenly. I'd picked up a healthy habit and was sticking to it.

Often when folks are told to change their diets, they're given the one-choice-or-none approach. Either they're handed supplements by the wheelbarrow and continue to eat the same as always, relying on the magic silver bullet of herbs, or they're told, "You need to stop eating red meat and have it never again and be a vegan forever no exceptions." While this is responsible in some cases (namely allergies), generally most people can't do the all-or-nothing. They have to start slow and be reinforced often. There's a reason kids given stickers in school learn to spell quickly.

My very first blog post was about drinking water. I discovered the magic of hydration, and swore I'd be chugging that sweet nectar of life until every cell inside me was sick of wearing its bathing suit. But like every other human being out there who's promised to stick to something, I have very quickly found myself with cracked lips and a mouth like a desert (especially in the morning - hello Sahara). The fact is, winter is upon us, and as the cold weather moves in, my desire to do anything, including walk, eat, and drink, becomes extremely limited. To add insult to injury and enjoy a double idioms, it's hard to teach an old dog new tricks. I'm used to eating lots of simple carbs and drinking little water, and though I'd promised I'd rectify both habits, they're habits, and are severely ingrained into my life as stubbornly as a tick in the foot would be (Mom always warned us about going without shoes in the woods).

There will always be those persons who decide to do something and do it, cold turkey. Quitting smoking, abolishing fast food from their lives, or becoming immediately talented, like the boys my sister hung out with in school who just decided to learn to back-flip one day, and did (how?!). But for the rest of us, picking up a habit and adhering to it for the full twenty-one days they say it takes to make it automatic is often super stupid hard. For a few days we're golden, then we get lazy, or some event throws us off our schedule, and suddenly we're a week without following our own promises. Oops.

If the old Berenstain Bears books taught me anything, it was that nail polish is the best prize for taking care of your nails. I'm one of those people (and believe it or not, this is entirely unrelated to me preferring chicks to dudes) who cannot stand having long nails. Talons that click on tables and keyboards, hinder my ability to pick things up, and grow all kinds of little pointy bits drive me up the wall. I cut my fingernails down as far as I can and habitually pick at the sides and skin around them. Gross, I know. As of lately, though, I've been suffering the clickity-click and nasty feeling of enamel out of pure love - and compliance. GF's taking an aesthetics college course, and had me swear on fear of her murdering me that I would not pick at my nails so that she could do a proper manicure on them during her upcoming first night in the clinic. I promised I would, but only if they were kept painted. I like pretty colours on my hands and am less likely to destroy my nails if I can't see the whites of them.

In this story lies two examples of ways to enforce a new habit:

1) Make yourself accountable to someone else

2) Reward yourself for sticking to it

My third suggestion is to make your habit something measurable. If you're taking up running, decide, for example, that you'll run at least to the stop sign at the bottom of your street before you turn back. If you go farther, great! But you must make it to that point. When you do, give yourself a reward. Food isn't always the best option, unless you're giving yourself one big night-out-for-nachos reward instead of a bunch of Cheetos-for-dinner treats, but something as simple as stickers on a chart or allowing yourself to buy a new pair of earrings (or nail polish!) can be awesome for enforcement. On that same vein, either convince someone to do the run to the stop sign together with you every day, or enlist someone in your house to force you to do it - if I told GF to not let me in the house until I'd gone for a walk, she would most adamantly stand in the doorway and threaten me in the way that only a hobbit-sized nerd girl can until I had finished my stroll. Positive-in-the-guise-of-negative enforcement can be wonderful for making you feel guilty and obligated, especially if the other person does the, "It doesn't matter to me, but you promised yourself," thing. Be mindful of whom you're asking to threaten you, however - they'll need to know when to back down. If I were sick or having a severe bout of depression or anxiety, I would trust GF to recognize this and let the nagging go, or at least take me seriously when I said, "Not today."

When it comes to drinking water, I've decided to stick to one big blue bottle and drink two full loads of it daily. If I drink more, excellent! But two is my goal. That's 1.6 litres. Granted, I haven't yet found someone
to share the challenge with, which is probably the best way to hold myself accountable, but two days out of the week I'm in a classroom full of quasi-hippies who have water-drinking superiority complexes, and there is no stronger peer pressure to drink up than a judgmental eye (or twenty).

Finally, remember to give yourself some slack. Everybody forgets to take their vitamins, fill in their daily journal, and brush their teeth a particular way sometimes. Anyone telling you otherwise is lying. Habits take a long time to enforce, and nine out of ten people are going to fall off the bandwagon a couple times before new goals stick. Making yourself swear that you're going to do something is great, but the most important thing to promise - shut up, Yoda - is that you'll keep trying. I've been on and off promising myself I'll stick to vegetarianism for years, and sometimes I feel bad about having a nibble of Christmas turkey, but I've learned to listen to what my body wants, and sometimes it wants a piece of poultry. Some days you really don't want to run, because everything sucks and the outside world just seems too big. Sometimes you pick up a cigarette and puff halfway through it before you remember you were trying to quit. Some potlucks just have damn good food with crap-tons of fat in it. Remember that one time isn't every time, and you're strong enough to try again.

In the end:

1) Everybody makes goals and promises that they have trouble sticking to. Habits take forever to build. Make your new habit something you can measure, and practice it at the same times each day to make it really stick. Enforce it, reward yourself, and cut yourself some slack when you need to. At the risk of exasperated eye-rolling for using another idiom: Rome wasn't built in a day.

2) Drink your water.

- Leah

No comments:

Post a Comment