How To Give Up Bad Habits!

  • By Brian Keane

The clocks officially went back at the weekend, so that means one thing; we’re coming into that limbo period between Halloween and Christmas where nothing much seems to happen, or so we think.

When I worked as a teacher in West London, November was our ‘real teaching month’; that’s not to say that we didn’t get work done at other times of the year, we did; but something strange would happen every November. Test scores would go up, children became much more focused and we would get through two or three times the work than any other month.

I wasn’t doing anything out of the ordinary, I was still preparing lessons and teaching at 100% but the children responded differently. However, one day, the figurative penny dropped. Sitting amongst a group of older teachers in a heated staff room on a cold Novembers day, an elderly woman who was going into her final year of teaching turned to me in her strong Glasweigian accent and said “ sure there’s nothing else going on this shagging month, of course they’re going to learn more”. What she meant was there was no planning for Halloween, no Christmas plays or song rehearsals, November effectively become the ‘get work done’ month. It finally made sense.

One of the things I love most is human psychology, why do we do the things we do or think the way we think? So this inevitably led me to an internal chicken or an egg debate. Was I subconsciously teaching at a higher level because there were no distractions or were the children leaning at an increasing rate because they had no distraction? I don’t think there is a right or wrong answer; and is more likely a combination of both but it really lead me to think about how November can be the best month to start something new or quit something old.

Its the month with the least distraction, the lead up time to Christmas is going to pass regardless, why not start a new habit or even better, kick an old one in the process?

Quitting Something Old (Chocolate, Fast Food or Cigarettes)

It’s hard to kick old habits because it takes so long for us to see the negative affects. If you took a bite of fast food cheeseburger and immediately fell to the ground clutching your chest from a heart attack, you might not go back for the second bite. If your next puffs of a cigarette instantly mutated your face into a weathered eighty year old, chances are you’d pass on that too. And, my personal favourite, if your first forkful of cake or 100g bar of chocolate instantly put 50 pounds on your frame, you’d probably think more carefully about it.

Pain and Pleasure: make the switch

If you are already on the cusp of giving up fast food, smoking or sugar; then the visual image above might be enough to keep you on track but for most of us, we need something deeper. Before I go on, ill ask a question. Are there things in your life you would never ever do, even the thought of doing it can cause you great pain? Think of all the sensations you link to those things. If you link those same feelings and sensations to the behaviours you want to avoid, you’ll never do them again either.

The secret to quitting anything is to link as much pain to the thing you’re trying to quit and pleasure to the feeling of being without it. If you scroll though my social media over the past year, you’re unlikely to see any pictures or posts of Ben and Jerry’s ice cream or some other movie going comfort food; however, go back past this year and you will likely see at least one photo a week (yes I was that generic ‘here’s my cheat meal, do I still have abs?’ social media d*ckhead that I’ve grown to dislike so much).

A funny thing happened to me about a year ago. I started to become more self aware of how certain foods were making me feel; after a talk with one of my mentors and telling her I was tired all the time, she explained about how certain foods give you energy whilst others take from your energy. Having been training and eating a certain way for over 15 years; I thought I already knew this but as I still didn’t feel any better; I applied one of my favourite metaphors for life, I ‘emptied my cup’ and let go of some of my own ideas in adoption to trial some of hers.

“A cups usefulness comes from its emptiness” – Bruce Lee

Is Ice Cream Messing You Up?

I listened to what Maria had to say and over the next two or three months, I started to realise that my weekly cheat meals were making me feel tired, sluggish and groggy for three days after having it. This meant that if I had my tub of ice cream on a Saturday, I was edgy on Sunday, tired on Monday and had brain fog on Tuesday. That’s nearly half my entire week!

If you have been following my platforms for a while, you have probably noticed an increase in the amount of content I create; this is directly correlated to this. I’ve given up the foods that ‘took away my energy’ and my productivity has shot up.

This is also one of the main philosophies built into my online program; using foods that give you energy and don’t take your energy. Its funny because it’s a build muscle, tone up and lose body fat program and people get incredible physical results but it’s the actual increase in energy and life quality that makes it so sustainable over the long term.

I’m also not saying to give up your favourite foods forever, I’ll still go for ice cream with Holly a few times a month but a funny thing happens when you link a pleasure and pain, you don’t really want that food any more.

I’ve now linked eating a tub of ice cream to the feeling of edginess, tiredness and brain fog and the urge to have it is all but gone. Over the month of the November, take some time to reflect on how you are feeling without your vice, the first 10 days are always going to be hard (I advise an X on a calendar for these days especially if you are a visual person) and then if you decide to go back on fast food, cigarettes or cake on the 1st of December; see how you feel. The chances are that cigarette, cheese burger or tub of ice cream will make you feel sick after not having it for a month; remember this is what its been doing to your body all along, you were just immune to it.

Should You Give Things Up ‘Cold Turkey’ Or Go For ‘Moderation’

For some people, it is a straight forward as that. One of my closest friends regularly decides ‘no I don’t like the way that makes me feel’ – he links the pain to the behaviour and never does it again. For the majority of us, it’s more difficult than that. Knowing whether to give something up ‘cold turkey’ our ‘have it in moderation’ has been one of the biggest tools that has supported me. Everybody is very different on this but if you know what system works for you, you can apply it to anything food, alcohol, chocolate or whatever your vice.

Cold Turkey or Moderation?

This is relatively easy to determine but it still took me years (and several will power book and habit books) to discover and understand that we are all built differently and every one will respond to whatever fits best for their personality type. If you are better at giving things up cold turkey, trying to have something in moderation is like trying to fit a round peg into a square hole and vice versa, it just doesn’t fit.

Can you have just one piece?

I go into this in more detail in next weeks podcast ‘How To Create New Habits and Break Old Ones’ (out 7th of November) but there is one simple question you can ask yourself: when you try and give something up; if you have a small piece every day do you feel better for it or do ‘the flood gates’ open i.e. you feel like you cant control what happens next?

Personally, I know I’m a ‘cold turkey’ person – I can go months without chocolate or ice cream and not miss it but once I get a taste for it, its nearly inevitable or at least a viscous internal battle to not finish the box, tub or packet.

However, we all have a friend, partner or work colleague who can eat a square of chocolate and put it back in the cupboard until the following day; you might even be this person.

Its funny because ‘cold turkey’ people, myself included look at ‘moderation’ people and think ‘how can you do that, how can you just have one piece?’ – whilst the moderation people look at us with a ‘I couldn’t give it up like that, id go insane if I couldn’t have a small piece every day’ – the key is knowing yourself and also understanding that not everyone is the same as you; and to not ‘do it their way’ because it works for them. If all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail so do what works best for you. The simple question I ask myself now and I use this same approach with my online clients in our group to help those that struggle with their vices is:

1) Can you have one square of chocolate and put it away happily (moderation)

2) Can you have one square of chocolate and then you are craving it all day and want to (or do) devour the whole bar? (Cold turkey).

Knowing this one piece of information can be the difference between long-term success or another day, week or month of beating yourself up because ‘you can’t quit’.

Obviously, with things like chocolate and sugar; they’re not as toxic to your body as say cigarettes but the same principle can apply. I’ve had clients give up cigarettes cold turkey and others wean down from ten a day to five a day to one a day, eventually replacing with a e-cigarettes or some other variation that supplemented the hardwired neurological movement pattern (hand to mouth for cigarettes). If you have a vice that you are looking to give up for November, try asking yourself the questions above and see if you can determine if you are best suited for ‘cold turkey’ or ‘moderation’.

“If I had eight hours to cut down a tree, id spend 6 hours sharpening my axe” Abraham Lincoln

Know what system work best for you and then use that. Using a system that doesn’t support you is like wearing someone else’s shoes; they will be fine for the first 20 or 30 steps, they’ll even get you out the door, but eventually, you’ll just take them off because they don’t fit properly.

Brian Keane Fitness Podcast

Brian is a qualified personal trainer, sports nutritionist and strength and conditioning coach.

He is the best selling author of the book The Fitness Mindset and currently travels the world as a professional speaker. He also hosts the #1 podcast The Brian Keane Podcast.

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