Advice From the Trenches


Advice from the Trenches

Dear C;

I have had it. I am sick and tired of myself. Every year I resolve to make the same changes and I start off with such a great attitude and so much enthusiasm, and then it just kind of dribbles off. I didn’t even bother to try this year.

I know I have some bad habits that I need to quit. If I don’t stop smoking and eat better, I’m gonna end up like my father — the dude has chronic obstructive pulmonary disease and diabetes now and his life totally sucks. But making resolutions doesn’t work for me and I’ve already tried Weight Watchers. I’m not a joiner. What else is there?   – Flawed Fred 

Dear Flawed;

If New Year’s resolutions did work there probably wouldn’t be nearly as much cheap exercise equipment for sale on Craigslist. The biggest problem with making those virtuous resolutions is that it leaves you free to spend every day until New Year overindulging in whatever you plan to give up. By New Years you’re probably bloated, strung out, and in worse shape than ever. After the initial Clean Slate enthusiasm wears off, and all you’ve managed to do is get back to where you were a month ago, you’re just plain sick of it.

If you really want to change, stop making resolutions and learn how to make habits work for you instead of against you. 

All humans are creatures of habit, and good or bad, all of our habits have a purpose. They help us stay anchored and they give us a sense of security and comfort in an uncertain world. Even when they are eroding our health, they make us feel better, albeit in the short run. We can’t expect to simply rip out a habit and then go on — life becomes a constant struggle against an aching void.

Something has to fill that void. If you simply stop the habit, you are going to feel like crap — and if you don’t see the “new you!” results that you were expecting, the whole struggle is going to seem pointless. No wonder you give up.

Throwing out bad habits without forming new ones is like throwing out your old living room furniture without bothering to buy a new set. There’s no place to sit but the floor.

It’s time for you to go habit shopping, Fred. 

The #1 top rated replacement for any habit is exercise. There are a huge number of varieties to choose from and Craigslist will have some real bargains by February if you need equipment. Take advantage of those poor suckers, who are still making resolutions.

Maybe you don’t want to exercise — no one who is not in the habit of exercising ever does. But if you want a big return on your investment, exercise is a blue chip stock.

Exercise helps flush out toxins and it improves your mood; the endorphins it produces are a great  high. It makes you feel like you’re doing something, not just sitting there waiting for stuff to go away. And exercise makes you look and feel healthier. Instead of presenting a pale, suffering face to the world, your flushed cheeks, and heavy breathing say: I’m ready for SEX. 

Find some kind of exercise that is also fun and interesting. If you like to watch movies, set yourself up on stationary equipment in front of a screen and entertain yourself while you sweat. Pumping to music can fire you up when you are sinking into a depression. Or, if you like to compete, join a team or play tennis. Go hiking with friends. Take dance lessons or get a workout video if you don’t want to join anything. Whatever you do, don’t sit in one spot and struggle with your demons. The demons will always win. Get your freakin’ ass in gear.

New habits can also be painless and fun. Pick up a musical instrument. Take voice lessons. You can sign up for glass blowing classes, or learn a language. Chill out with meditation, yoga, or t’ai chi. Volunteer for your favorite cause and meet new people. Are you starting to get the idea? Don’t just try to force yourself to give things up. GET something. It really takes your mind off whatever habit you are trying to break.

But, a caution: if you have a drug or alcohol problem you need more than a new habit. You need professional and sometimes medical help. Drugs can alter your thinking and your physiology, to the point where you are incapable of making a decision that your drug of choice does not want you to make — and trust me, your drug does not want you to quit. If you suddenly go cold turkey, your body is going to go into a state of extreme crisis, and this is nothing to fool around with on your own.

Luckily, Fred, your habits sound like ones that haven’t actively ruined your life yet and you have a rational grasp of the need to change. I think you can. Just remember this: It takes two months for a new habit to really take hold. If you can make it to two months, it stops being an uphill battle. You may never stop craving your old ways, but the more you feed the new habit, the stronger it gets. You might actually start craving exercise.

A habit can work for you. This time choose a good one.