Let’s Talk About… Habits

By Jeremy Godwin.

Welcome to Let’s Talk About Mental Health, the weekly podcast about improving your mental health and wellbeing by Australian author and speaker Jeremy Godwin. Each episode focuses on one specific topic and is full of practical advice for improving and maintaining your mental health and wellbeing.

This is Episode 29 and this week I’m talking about habits – I’ll be discussing the role of habits in good mental health and wellbeing, and how you can change your habits over time. Listen to the podcast now in the Spotify player below or continue reading for the article/transcript version.

Let’s talk!

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Introduction

There’s an old song called ‘Bad Habits’ from 1981 by an Australian artist named Billy Field, with possibly the most frustrating lyrics I think I’ve ever heard in my entire life – I won’t sing them because I don’t want to torture you, but let me quote a few lines:

Well I’m in a mess
Because I can’t repress
All of these
Bad habits

‘Bad Habits’ (1981) by Billy Field

Catchy song, irritating lyrics. Why? Because it reinforces the notion that so-called ‘bad’ habits are completely out of our control and therefore can’t be changed. Well, that’s just not true. Everything you do and say is a choice, and yes some habits may be harder to change than others but they are not impossible to change – nothing is impossible.

Just because we’ve done something for a long time or thought about things a particular way for most or all of our lives, that doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s in your best interests and it certainly doesn’t mean it can’t be changed. I think that quite often we’re prone to going about our lives without challenging ourselves to take a long, hard look at whether or not all of our choices are healthy choices – I’m talking about the conscious decisions we make as well as the subconscious ones that we might not even be aware we’re making every day. So this week I’m challenging you to take a long, hard look at yourself and consider what habits might benefit from a bit of attention (or maybe even a complete overhaul) for the sake of your mental health and wellbeing. Let’s start with some definitions… 

Defining habits

There are a few different ways to look at the notion of ‘habits’, such as:

  • things we do without having to think about them (i.e. Actions we might perform automatically, like all the elements associated with driving a car which becomes habit over time);
  • addictions, e.g. Smoking, drinking, taking drugs, food;
  • regular tendencies and behaviours; and,
  • mannerisms and characteristics 

In psychology, habits are described as being “an automatic reaction to a specific situation” (source: Apple dictionary).

When we talk about habits, let’s forget about defining things as “good” and “bad” (because that’s where we get into judgement territory, and I think there’s already far too much judgement going on in the world!) – instead, our focus should be on healthy vs unhealthy habits. I talk a lot in Let’s Talk About Mental Health about the need to proactively manage our mental, physical and spiritual health, because everything is connected, so with those three forms of health in mind let’s then consider how healthy vs unhealthy habits fit into the equation.

The main distinction is whether or not a habit is in the best interests of your long-term mental, physical and spiritual health (and that means both how it impacts on you as well as how it impacts on the greater world around you, because what you put out comes back to you – such as in terms of how people then respond to you as you make your way through the world). 

Only you can really decide if something is healthy or unhealthy for you, assuming you’re capable of being completely honest with yourself (because we all know that human beings can be prone to having an amazing ability to pretend things are fantastic even when the building’s on fire), but a few simple guidelines I would suggest to you to consider are:

  1. does the habit have a positive or negative effect on your life?
  2. does the habit have a positive or negative effect on the people closest to you?
  3. does the habit have a positive or negative effect on the greater world?

Again, it’s up to you to determine what’s healthy and what’s not —  but you do have to be brutally honest with yourself, soa lot of what I’m talking about today involves challenging you to assess where you’re at in terms of habits both honestly and objectively in order to then identify what is healthy versus what is unhealthy. This isn’t about blame or about beating yourself up over unhealthy habits; this is about saying today is a line in the sand. This is an opportunity for you to assess those things that potentially aren’t healthy and to make changes without judging what has happened in the past, but instead using today as a clean slate.

When we talk about habits, it’s about everything you do and say and feel — because that is what shapes your reality. There’s a quote by an unknown author floating around on Instagram which I hesitated about using, because I try to cite valid sources as much as possible in my work, but this one was too good not to share. It is:

“It’s the small habits. How you spend your mornings. How you talk to yourself. What you read. What you watch. Who you share your energy with. Who has access to you. That will change your life.”

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I wanted to share that because I think we so often focus on the big habits (like diet and exercise and substance use) that we completely ignore the fact that everything we do every single day comes back to habit, and so if our habits are driven by choice then we have an opportunity to look at every aspect of our lives and consider what is in our best interests, so we can do more of that, and also what is not in our best interests, so we can do less of it or change it entirely.

Our habits have a direct impact on ourselves as well as others. What we do and say matters, because even little actions or words can add up to big effects. If you’re looking at how you can take control of your mental health and wellbeing, then I strongly suggest that it’s essential to take an honest look at all of your habits and consider how your choices impact on yourself and others. 

I’m talking about everything here – from what you put in your body through to how your words and actions affect other people. I know, it’s some big stuff I’m talking about today… and I’m going to try to be as non-judgemental and non-preachy as I can (because nothing drives people to bad behaviour more than telling them not to do something!), but let me just say this one thing really bluntly: everything you do matters, because that is what creates your reality. If you frequently indulge in unhealthy habits, you will be less and less healthy – mentally, physically and spiritually. Fortunately, nothing is irreversible; positive change just takes time and effort. So, let’s explore that a bit more.

Understanding healthy vs unhealthy habits

A lot of our unhealthy habits are reactions to stress or unhappiness. Thinking about my own emotional eating, let’s be honest here: happy people don’t sit and eat massive amounts of junk food even when they can see the physical effects it’s having on our bodies. Yet, so often we turn a blind eye to the effects of our unhealthy habits especially when we’re using them as security blankets. In researching this episode, I read an article in Psychology Today called ‘How to Change Unhealthy Habits’ which made two great points:

  1. Habits are “the things we are so used to that they become our default even when we know better”; and,
  2. Whether it’s not sleeping, lack of exercise, poor food choices, or overindulgence in alcohol—we know these things are not healthy for us. Why do we persist—and just as importantly, how can we stop? The trick to getting rid of unhealthy habits is to stop justifying our poor choices and rewrite the script so we default to where we want to be. 

(source: https://www.psychologytoday.com/au/blog/renaissance-woman/201607/how-change-unhealthy-habits)

The individual choices you make every day = the choices you make regularly. The choices you make regularly = your habits. Your habits = your lifestyle. Your lifestyle = your mental health and wellbeing. So if you want to improve your mental health and wellbeing, then it makes sense that you need to work backwards – by examining your lifestyle, and then the habits creating your lifestyle, and the choices you make regularly that form those habits, and then ultimately looking at the individual choices you make every day.

Habits aren’t just the obvious lifestyle choices like food, drink, exercise… Habits are also behaviours such as choosing to snap at your partner when you’re annoyed with them, or procrastinating on getting your work done on time, or complaining about things to anyone who will listen. Each action leads to an outcome, and often unhealthy actions lead to negative outcomes and consequences later on. Each habit is a choice – whether it’s conscious (i.e. You do it on purpose) or subconscious (i.e. It’s so ingrained in your nature that you don’t even realise you’re doing it), it’s still a choice. 

So why are habits such an important part of good mental health and wellbeing? Well, there are lots of reasons but the most fundamental  one is that every action you take every single day, no matter how small, adds up to become the sum of who you are and how you experience this life – and so, if you’re given a choice between feeling good about yourself versus feeling terrible, surely the majority of us would choose feeling good? I don’t know about you, but I know I would! Having said that, many of us then make choices that aren’t in our best interests in the long run (which means we often end up just basically choosing to defer dealing with the consequences to sometime in the future, and our future selves get stuck with the results). I’m a firm believer in living for today, but we also need to be responsible by learning from the past and making decisions that set ourselves up for the best possible future – which is where taking control of our habits comes in.

Like anything, understanding your habits begins with self-awareness – and self-awareness can be messy and painful. Instead of just taking a quick look at our situation and thinking about what we might be able to do to improve things for ourselves, true self-awareness involves taking a long, hard and brutally honest look at ourselves – the good, the bad, and the ugly – and having some potentially challenging conversations with our true self (not the one we present to the world – the real one, the one who only you truly know and very few people, if any, ever get to see). Yes, that level of self-assessment can be uncomfortable and confronting for many people – even terrifying, if there’s stuff you’ve been avoiding dealing with – but if you’re truly serious about tackling the habits that aren’t good for your long-term wellbeing, it needs to be done. 

In a minute I’ll give you some questions to help you kick-start that self-awareness process in your mind, but let me say (as I do so often) that it’s not something you need to go through alone or even should go through alone (especially if there is trauma in your past that may be manifesting in self-destructive behaviours), so as always I highly recommend you work with someone like a counsellor or therapist so that they can guide you through in a safe and supportive environment.

Broadly speaking, when it comes to mental health there are a lot of habits that do us far more harm than good – I’m sure I don’t need to spell them all out here, but suffice it to say we’re not just talking about the big-ticket ones like snorting illegal substances or spending all your time around people who put you down; in reality, it’s a lot of the small things we do each day that can add up to influence our mental health and wellbeing. 

There are many things in our control which are demonstrated to have a positive effect on our mental health, such as: 

  • eating a balanced diet
  • drinking plenty of water
  • exercising
  • building and maintaining strong social ties
  • expressing gratitude regularly
  • mindfulness practice, meditation
  • spending regular time outdoors
  • performing acts of kindness
  • getting enough sleep
  • laughter
  • making plans so we have things to look forward to
  • learning new skills
  • taking regular breaks from social media
  • talking about our feelings with a counsellor or therapist
  • focusing on a “work to live” mindset instead of living to work
  • practicing self-care
  • positive thinking
  • doing things that give you meaning and purpose

If you’re interested in reading a bit more, have a look at the article “Building Better Mental Health” from HelpGuide.org for some ideas of effective strategies for addressing some of these; I’ll include the link in the transcript (source: https://www.helpguide.org/articles/mental-health/building-better-mental-health.htm). 

The focus for each of us is on creating long-term sustainable change, which takes time and effort. How do you do that? Let’s discuss… 

Changing habits over time

Some key things to consider/do are:

  • Self-awareness – ask yourself questions like: “What are the things I do that are healthy? What about unhealthy things? What things do I get feedback on regularly? What patterns appear time and time again in my life? What types of things do I avoid?” Some of these can be a really good starting point, but it really is about taking the time to sit and understand where you’re at.
  • Identify what you want to change and, more importantly, why you want to change – and be completely crystal clear about it (because your ‘why’ will help to underpin everything you do to address the habit).
  • Understand why the habit has formed – there is no point in just addressing the symptoms unless you want to waste your time! Dig deep – I’ve talked in previous episodes about techniques for this like the ‘five why’s’ technique (which you can review in the Baggage episode, Episode 8, here: https://letstalkaboutmentalhealth.com.au/lets-talk-about-baggage/) – your aim is to address the root cause, not just the symptom(s).
  • Research different options and consider your personality/preferences – you don’t have to have all the answers (and I hate to break it to you but you don’t have all the answers anyway), so research different options before you settle on a specific approach to changing your habit (and make choices in line with your personality – if you’re not comfortable around strangers at the best of times, don’t put yourself in a situation where you’ll feel vulnerable like being yelled at in a boot camp while looking a hot mess in front of a group of people you don’t know… find options that work for your preferences).
  • Replace unhealthy habits with healthy habits – sounds obvious, I know, but you’d surprised how many times we just decide to deny ourselves an unhealthy habit and then wonder why we don’t succeed when it all gets too difficult. Instead, make it easier for yourself by swapping (e.g. Changing your morning McDonald’s breakfast to a healthy but tasty option from that cafe down the road; or changing your daily gossip with your bestie about all the people at work who annoy you for a daily joint mindfulness session outdoors for five or ten minutes).
  • Start small, take small steps – You don’t necessarily need to boil the entire ocean nor should you! Small steps can generate big results over time e.g If you read 10 pages a day, that’s 70 pages a week and 3,650 pages a year – enough to get through quite a few books! If you write, then writing 500 words a day will yield 3,500 words a week and 182,500 words a year… small steps really do add up to big results! Results are achieved by the sum of all parts, no matter how small (e.g. Improving your fitness – one single day won’t do it entirely, but all of the days combined will do it).
  • Build gradually – if you’re able to, gradually build up over time to increase your results (if you feel that it’s realistic and/or appropriate). 
  • One thing at a time – I once tried to quit smoking, quit drinking and adopt a healthy eating plan all at once. I lasted four days. Don’t bite off more than you can chew – focus on one specific thing, give it your 100% commitment, master that and then take on something else if and when you feel ready.
  • Choose a positive mindset – use positive language with yourself, such as substituting “I can’t” (denying yourself) for “I don’t” (supporting your own lifestyle choices in an empowering way).
  • Measure and track your progress– by doing so you can see your results more tangibly which serves to positively reinforce what you’re doing.
  • Take a moment to consider the impact on your future self before you do or don’t do something – this doesn’t always work, because we’re often hard-wired to look for the immediate reward, but something that works for me sometimes is to take a moment to think about what I’m doing to my future self before I act (or don’t act). Anyway, find what works for you.
  • Be kind to yourself – and remember that mistakes aren’t the end of the road, they’re an opportunity to remind yourself why you’re making the change and to refocus if you need to.
  • Know your triggers and come up with alternatives – you’ve no doubt heard that “failing to plan is planning to fail” which is why it’s important to know your triggers and to be prepared with alternatives if and when they happen.
  • If you do fail, don’t beat yourself up but do take the time to understand why – don’t just put the change in the ‘too hard’ basket, but take time to understand and address the ‘why’ behind any failures (e.g. Not going to your exercise class – is it because you’re feeling unmotivated or is it because you feel self-conscious in a room full of people? If so, find an alternative that doesn’t put you in that environment). No matter what, be kind to yourself but also don’t give up.
  • Reward your progress, no matter how small – and again, remind yourself why you’re doing what you’re doing and reward incremental progress that you make.
  • Get support – you don’t have to go it alone! Talk to a counsellor or therapist, join a support group, chat with understanding and supportive (and objective) family and friends, download an app… whatever you need to do. 
  • Remember to take things one day at a time – just like in the movie Contact with Jodie Foster: small steps Ellie, small steps! You don’t have to solve everything overnight — take things one day at a time, it makes life a helluva lot easier!
  • Constantly review, review, review and refine/redirect as necessary – what served you yesterday will not necessarily serve you tomorrow. If you always do what you’ve always done, you’ll always get what you always got.

Summary and close-out

When it comes to habits, what it all boils down to is this: Every little thing that you do has the potential to become a habit if it’s repeated often enough, and habits are either healthy or unhealthy. Nobody is suggesting that you should live like a monk in a cave and never have any fun, but there’s an enormous difference between enjoying yourself every now and then versus doing things to yourself on a regular basis that are going to have serious negative consequences later on. Habits aren’t just about things like food or exercise, but also things like the way you speak to yourself and others as well as the way you behave towards others and yourself. You can choose whether to allow an unhealthy habit to persist, and even though it often takes a lot of hard work to change destructive habits the results are definitely worth it. So the next time you go to put something in your mouth that’s full of processed stuff or the next time you go to say something less than kind about another person, stop and think about what you’re doing and what choice you’re making about your future life – because it is all a choice, so why not make conscious choices that are in the best interests of your long-term mental health and wellbeing? Your future self will thank you for the choices you make today.

To finish up, let me take a moment to share a quote about this week’s topic that I’d like to encourage you to reflect on and consider what it means to you. This week’s quote is by the American writer Elbert Hubbard, and it is:

“Cultivate only the habits that you are willing should master you.” 

Elbert Hubbard

That’s it for this week’s episode. Next week I’ll be talking about identity – I’ll be talking about finding and maintaining your sense of identity and living authentically, even while dealing with mental health issues.

I hope you’ll join me for that episode, which will be released on Monday morning in Australia & New Zealand, Sunday evening in the UK & Ireland, and Sunday afternoon in the US & Canada. You can find past episodes and additional content at the website which is letstalkaboutmentalhealth.com.au.

You can find Let’s Talk About Mental Health on Instagram, Facebook and Pinterest – I’ve recently changed the account name to better reflect the focus on mental health and make it easier for new people to identify what LTAMH is all about, so the new username is now @ltamentalhealth on all social media platforms (Instagram, Facebook and Pinterest).

Thank you very much for joining me today – look after yourself and make a conscious effort to share positivity and kindness in the world, because you get back what you put out. Take care and talk to you next time.

Jeremy 🙂

PS: If you enjoyed this week’s episode/post, please share it with someone you know because word of mouth is a great way to help other people find Let’s Talk About Mental Health (and I’d really appreciate it if you could take a moment to leave a five-star review on your preferred podcast platform). Thanks!

Let’s Talk About Mental Health.
Because the more we talk about it, the easier it gets.

Let’s Talk About Mental Health. © 2020 Jeremy Godwin.

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