The following is an excerpt I stole from The Unnatural Athlete, by Charles Staley of Staley Training Systems:
“Habits are like cobwebs at first, cables at last” — Proverb
with the New Year upon us, I thought I’d use this installment of The Unnatural Athlete to
explore the relationship between our habits and the outcomes we experience in training and
The concept of “New Year’s resolutions” has always been interesting to me, primarily because so
few people manage to keep them. Since the conventional route rarely works, let’s explore a less
What Are Habits?
Habits are consistent patterns that reveal our character and determine our effectiveness in life.
Steven Covey describes habits as “the intersection of knowledge, skill, and desire.” In Covey’s
representation, knowledge represents the paradigm we apply to a situation, or the “how to do.”
Skill is the “how to do,” and desire is the motivation or the “want to do.”
Benefits & Costs
Anthony Robbins has suggested that we do not change “bad” habits until the negative consequences
of those habits begin to outweigh the perceived benefits. For example, you might find yourself in
the habit of eating a pint of ice cream every night before going to bed. You enjoy the experience
of eating that ice cream, and, at least for the short term, that enjoyment greatly outweighs the
negative outcomes of your habit, since it takes time for those extra calories to cause weight gain.
After several weeks however, it becomes evident that your ice cream habit has caused you to gain
15 pounds. At this point, the negative outcome of the habit is quite tangible, and because you have
been eating that ice cream every day for weeks, you don’t get the same enjoyment from it that you
used to. Because the negatives are now outweighing the positives, you’re now much more likely to
change your ice cream habit.
CHAnging UnprodUCtive HABits
In some cases, we are unaware of the negative consequences of our habits. For example, excessive
intake of processed carbohydrates can promote inflammatory responses in the joints. You may
assume that your painful joints are simply part of life, or the outcome of old athletic injuries. It
isn’t until you reduce your intake of processed carbs that you realize the negative consequences of
your former habit. On a similar note, we often do not realize the benefits of our good habits until
we discontinue them for a period of time.
We commonly assume that it takes discipline to change bad habits. It’s interesting to note that the
word “discipline” evolved from the root word “disciple” which means “one who learns.” And in fact,
when you encounter a highly disciplined person, you’re not looking at someone who gets his/her
kicks from self-denial, but instead, someone who has learned that the negative outcomes of certain
behaviors is not worth the benefits associated with them. It really comes down to self-awareness.
The skills required to change undesirable habits can be learned by anyone and are widely available
to those who seek it. The primary skill involved is the simply decision to take action. I recently saw
a great sketch on a television show, where Bob Newhart played a psychologist who billed himself as
being able to cure anyone’s problems in 5 minutes. A female patient comes in whereupon he asks
“How may I help you?” She proceeds to explain that she has a terrible eating disorder where she
eats copious amounts of food, only to purge the meal shortly thereafter. “Is that all?” Newhart asks?
“No” she replies, and begins to describe her terrible drug and alcohol problems. “Anything else?”
Newhart inquires. “Yes,” the patient continued, explaining that she also has Obsessive-compulsive
tendencies, and can’t manage to leave her house without making sure that the stove if off dozens
Finally, the patient had fully detailed her numerous psychological problems. Newhart reflects for a
moment, and then simply says “OK, here’s what you need to do: STOP IT!”
“Just STOP IT!”
“I also pull my eyelashes out”
“Stop that too”
Unfortunately, simply stopping your bad habits, in and of itself, is an insufficient strategy. A much
more effective plan is to substitute a new, more productive habit in place of the one you’ve decided
to end. For example:
Sitting in front of the television at night is the enemy of good eating habits. You’re being bombarded
with tremendously effective food commercials, and you’re in close proximity to the fridge. If you
find that you’re most vulnerable to making poor eating choices at night, this could be the reason
why. If you can terminate the night-time TV habit and substitute it with (for example), a bike ride,
a lot of good things start to happen:
1. You’re away from the pervasive food commercials and the access to the fridge
2. You’re burning calories while you exercise
3. Exercise tends to blunt your appetite
4. When you exercise, you’re more likely to eat right, as a way of further leveraging the good effects
of the exercise
The motivation required to change bad habits comes from the realization that the benefits you
experience from your habits are not worth the negative outcomes of those habits.
The following is an exercise to help you become more aware of the benefit/cost ratio of your habits.
Spend a few minutes on this exercise right now:
My 3 most effective/empowering training/nutritional habits are:
My 3 most destructive training/nutritional habits are:
Now take a moment to identify the benefits or rewards you experience from each habit, and also
the negative outcomes (if any) of each habit.
Example: Under the effective habit list, you may have listed that you eat 5 times a day (as opposed
to 2 or 3). The benefits of this habit are that your energy levels are more stable, your
cravings for sugary foods has diminished, you can eat more without gaining weight, and
that your body composition has improved. The negative aspects of this habit are that it
is occasionally inconvenient to eat so often, and that you need to give more thought to
meal preparation than you used to. Are the benefits worth the cost?
The nice thing about establishing new habits is that most of the hard work takes place in the first
3-4 weeks...after that initial period of time, the amount of effort required to sustain the new habit
The bottom line is that whatever strategy you choose to change undesirable habits, at some point,
you simply need to take action; you need to interrupt the pattern. You might find it helpful to
recall a positive experience from your past as you managed to stop a bad habit. How did you do it?
Was it worth the effort? Was it really as hard as you had anticipated?