Habits: Do They Control You or Do You Control Them?

We must try our best to make our habits work for us and not against us.

Posted Jan 14, 2014

We typically spend the early part of our lives developing habits but then spend the latter part of our lives controlled by those habits. This was the point of view expressed by a senior dental insurance executive I spoke with at a holiday party a few weeks ago. He was talking about how older dentists often have a great deal of trouble managing their professional practices in light of new technologies and ways of doing things now (e.g., using social media for advertising). He spoke of thriving dental practices that were now dying since “old dogs have trouble learning new tricks.”

As I have thought more and more about this cocktail party conversation I think he was really “spot on.” Observing my colleagues in psychology, the academic community in general, many of my clinical psychotherapy patients, and so forth, this wise observation seems to be true indeed. For example, an older patient in my clinical practice has a long time habit of enjoying a “happy hour” with her husband each night. They have a good marital relationship many decades and have developed the habit of having a few drinks before dinner each evening starting at 5pm. However, the amount of alcohol consumed is concerning since she admits that her two drinks each night includes 4 ounces of “the hard stuff.” That’s what she admits to, but it could be more (people are notorious for underestimating their alcohol consumption). Health guidelines for women published by the National Institute of Health suggest no more than 1.5 ounces of hard alcohol for women each day (or 12 ounces of beer or 5 ounces of wine). After a recent bout of chemotherapy and radiation treatment for cancer she claims that alcohol no longer tastes good to her but she drinks the same amount each day regardless stating that it is a habit that she developed over the years and she isn’t willing to change now. When confronted with the research evidence of the potential risk that too much alcohol contributes to cancer, she shrugs.

Perhaps we all are vulnerable to developing habits that ultimately control us. This can be a really bad thing but it also can be a really good thing too. For example, daily exercise might be a really good habit to develop and nurture while drinking too much at cocktail hour each day is clearly a bad habit.

This is one reason why I spend lots of time with my college students here at Santa Clara University talking about developing life-long health enhancing habits and working hard at changing health damaging behavioral habits early in life. Lack of exercise, poor sleeping patterns, eating too much high fat, high sugar, and high salt foods, drinking too much alcohol, unsafe sexual practices, and so forth can be common behaviors for college students. Too often they admit that these behaviors are not sustainable or healthy but promise to change them after graduation. Yeah, right! They may have good intensions but the longer you wait to develop healthy habits that harder they are to take hold.

This is one of the reasons why behavior is so hard to change. And at this time of year, a few weeks after new year celebrations, this truth becomes more apparent: New year resolutions for behavior change start to crumble and crumble fast before we even get to the MLK Day holiday or to Superbowl Sunday.

Because behavior and habits are so hard to change doesn’t mean that we should throw in the towel and give up. We just really need to be smart about it. Having reasonable expectations is one way to start. We need to change behaviors for us that are doable and sustainable. Findings ways to alter our environment to support behavior change is also very important (e.g., getting a large dog that needs a nice long walk each day is a great way to get your own exercise). And getting on it early in life is important too. For example, for me, I run every day which has been a habit started back in the mid 1970s that I just can’t seem to break and am pretty obsessive about it.

My patient should perhaps still continue her tradition of enjoying happy hour with her husband. But if we can find a way to lower or eliminate the alcohol consumption in her drinks then we can make her habit work better for her. She can turn a health damaging habit into more of a health enhancing one. Easier said than done for sure but we have to try our best to make our habits work for us and not against us.

So what do you think?

Copyright 2014 Thomas G. Plante, PhD, ABPP

Check out my website at www.scu.edu/tplante and follow me on Twitter @ThomasPlante.

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