How to Break Bad Habits

There seems to be a day for breaking every bad habit. For example, today is “World No Tobacco Day.” Having one special day can be good for awareness campaigns. Actually changing habits takes much longer.

The reason we call habits “bad” is because they are working against some other goal we have. Our habits might be bad for our health, or take time away from more important things. The trick is not to focus on the habit you don’t want, but instead focus on the better result you do want.

Find Time for Some Walking

You don’t have to run. But you do have to exercise a little every week. Your news feed and social media will be full of exercise tricks and gadgets, but the official recommendations are really simple: 150 minutes of moderate exercise like walking or cycling, or 75 minutes of running or similar.  

You can easily fit 150 minutes of walking into your week in 15-minute intervals. Get off the bus or train a little before your destination and walk for 15 minutes. If you do that on the way to work and on the way home, that gives you 30 minutes each work day. If you are in the office five days a week, that adds up to 150 minutes. 

If you are working from home, walk to work anyway. That means taking a 15-minute walk around the block when you start your workday, and another 15-minute walk when you end it. That has the added benefit of setting boundaries around your work time. The first walk can put you into focused “work mode”, and the second walk can allow your mind to change from work to relaxation. 

Create a Breathing Habit

How is your breathing? Now you might notice it. But most of the time, your breathing just happens. Try taking a few deep breaths. Notice how you feel calmer.

Breathing is interesting because there is a direct two-way connection between your breathing and your emotional state. Your stress level affects your breathing, but your breathing also affects your stress level.

To make sure you remember to take some time to breathe deeply, connect breathing with something you already do. Find some action you take several times a day, and take a few deep breaths before you do it. For example, whenever you pick up your coffee mug for a refill, hold the mug while you take three deep breaths. Getting some good breathing into your life will reduce stress.

Experiment on Yourself

Many self-trackers run science experiments on themselves. You should, too. I don’t recommend injecting yourself with strange drugs from the internet. I am talking about making changes to your diet and tracking the outcome.

Science has shown that improved diet can have as much effect as the latest innovation from the pharmaceutical industry. To improve your life, try an experiment.

Like Newton and Da Vinci, you’ll need a notebook. For one week, write down how you feel. That is your baseline. Then make a simple diet change. You already know what a better diet looks like. For example, you can replace an unhealthy snack with nuts and raisins. Continue writing down how you feel. After a few weeks, examine your notes and see if you feel better than the baseline before you made the change. If you do, great! Keep the change. If you don’t feel any improvement, that doesn’t mean the experiment failed. It means the experiment was successful and you proved that this change was not right for you. Make another change and repeat the experiment.

Use science to improve your life!

You Need 8,000 Steps per Day

You don’t need 10,000 steps a day. But 8,000 steps a day cuts your risk of dying prematurely by 40%. A big meta-study published in The Lancet gathers data from 15 large studies. They conclude that mortality – your risk of dying in any given month – at 8,000 steps is only 40% of that at 5,000 steps. Every 1.000 steps above 5.000 give you a 10% improvement.

If you believe you already take 8,000 steps per day, I have bad news for you: You don’t. Most people significantly overestimate their activity level. There is only one way to know and increase your number of steps: Count them. Get an app for your phone, or use a smartwatch or fitness tracker. Set a goal of 8,000 steps and find a way to track your progress. You will find that it also improves your productivity and your mood.

Winter is Over. Get Outside

The calendar tells us winter is over. If you have been hibernating, now is the time to get out of your cave.

Fresh air, daylight, and exercise are crucial elements of your physical and mental well-being. You have to get outside. No matter how fast you pedal on your Peloton bike, it is not enough. Your body needs to see daylight and breath fresh air. Make an appointment with yourself on your calendar to take a walk outside tomorrow.

Restart Your Health

If you weren’t out of shape already, you surely are after the pandemic. If your exercise routines was centered around going to a gym or participating in a team sport, it’s been dormant for a year now. Very few people have had the willpower to implement a new solo regime, so that’s why we’re all out of shape.

With gym reopenings beckoning and team sports starting up again, you need to prepare to go back. Start doing a little bit of exercise every day. If you’ve been taking a complete break from exercise, start with ridiculously small amounts of exercise, but add a little every day. Keep a record in a spreadsheet and make sure you do just a little more each day. If you jogged for 100 yards yesterday, jog 150 yards today. If you did 3 pushups yesterday, do 4 today.

Movement is crucial for both your physical and mental health. Start building your exercise routine back.

Track Your Sleep

Do you track your sleep? New research from the UK has added dementia to the long list of diseases and health problems associated with too little sleep. After controlling for many other factors, they found that 50-year-olds who slept six hours or less per night had a 22% increased risk of developing dementia. For 60-year-olds, the risk went up by 37%.

Keep track of your sleep for a few weeks to get an idea of whether you are sleeping enough. The Apple Watch and many other smart watches will register your sleep. You can also get a sensor to place under your mattress or even a Google Nest with radar to track your movement during the night. But even without a device, you can simply write down when you started your evening wind-down, when you went to bed and when you got up. Spending some time winding down (without devices or TV) and spending enough time in bed is the first step towards better sleep.

If you don’t get enough sleep, it is very hard to improve your life.