This past year brought enormous change for me. My husband died and I now live on my own. For 62 years, we took care of each other, shared household chores, and made joint decisions. We were best friends and planned to age well together.
We formed lots of habits over that time. We both worked and each of us had our chores: he always took care of the finances, the driving, and maintenance issues, I always took care of the meals, our social activities, and the household tasks. The rest we managed together. Even when he had Alzheimer’s disease, we held onto certain habits for as long as possible. Habits such as taking a walk in the evening and doing the dishes together.
As the Alzheimer’s disease progressed and he died, all of our habits also died. I was at a turning point in my life. Was I going to let the person I used to be overtake the person I wanted to become as Lacrie, the Christian rapper warned? Was I going to spend the rest of my life going slowly downhill until death because he died or was I going to be the person I wanted to be despite life’s circumstances?
F. M. Alexander, the Australian author and actor, said “People do not decide their futures, they decide their habits and their habits decide their futures.”
Our goal was to age well and that is still my goal. Is it possible for me to choose habits that would help me accomplish that for and by myself?
Could I really change ways of thinking and being that were in place for years?
What do we know about habits?
Well, a habit is a behavior that has become nearly or completely involuntary. It is something a person does automatically with no thought required. I like to think of habits in terms of being supportive or not supportive rather than being good or bad because the same habit can be good or bad depending on the person and the situation.
Overall, habits are wise and practically good. They keep people from having to make an infinite number of decisions every day, which provides brain-space and time to think about other things. The downside comes when they are no longer supportive.
Take a look at two examples. When the tail lights of the car in front of me are suddenly brighter and closer than they were a few seconds before, I automatically, put my foot on the brake pedal without conscious thought - that would be a supportive or good habit. Conversely, every night after dinner, I have a large bowl of vanilla ice-cream with butterscotch sauce - that would probably be considered an unsupportive or bad habit.
Unsupportive habits can be hard to break. They are deeply wired into the brain by constant repetition. When pleasure is added — like drugs or sugar — the pleasure center of the mid-brain is activated as well. No wonder I had the “ice-cream habit.”
In order to change your habits, you need to understand them. You can do that by asking yourself questions such as:
Can I identify habits or patterns I’ve created in my life?
Which habits are worth keeping and which should be tossed away?
What would be the benefit for me to change? What makes it important to me?
Does this habit serve me? What is it good for?
Does it reflect who I am?
Does it bring me closer to who I want to be?
Because unsupportive habits provide some type of benefit in your life, it's very difficult to eliminate them. That’s why simplistic advice like “just stop doing it” rarely works. Instead, you need to replace the unsupportive habit with a supportive habit. One that provides a similar benefit. Like my replacing the ice-cream with half a cookie, for example.
James Clear, author of the book Atomic Habits, says
All of the habits you have right now — good or bad — are in your life for a reason. In some way, these behaviors provide a benefit to you, even if they are bad for you in other ways. Sometimes, the benefit is biological like it is with smoking or drugs. Sometimes, it's emotional like it is when you stay in a relationship that is bad for you. And in many cases, your bad habit is a simple way to cope with stress. For example, biting your nails, pulling your hair, tapping your foot, or clenching your jaw.
To figure out what your reason might be, take a few minutes to read the following article regarding habits, patterns, and beliefs. The author says that habits are a behavioral expression of patterns and that patterns are an expression of unhealed wounds and unconscious beliefs. Something to think about.
What do we know about choice?
Well, choice gives a person the power and opportunity to choose. It means you are mindful of the possibilities you have and are consciously picking one.
Choice is present everywhere: in our actions, our thoughts, our emotions, and our daily life. The life we experience is a result of the choices we make and the habits we create. In the same way, our future will not be determined by chance, but rather by the choices we make today.
This YouTube video shows how choices work. Each time the man makes the same choice it gets easier. The choice eventually becomes automatic and a habit. Yes, there are consequences involved. Take a look!
But then my question was do we really choose our habits? According to the International Coaching Academy we do!
On the Rewiring the Soul website, I read
Consider the care with which we choose our clothes, our cars, our hairstylist, the cologne we use, the watch we wear, our mobile phone, and yes, the restaurants or clubs we frequent. Consider also - if it applies - the care with which you choose your wine, the paintings or rugs that adorn your home, and the destinations at which you vacation. And why wouldn't you? Choosing with care shows that you enjoy living in aesthetically pleasing surroundings, or dressing yourself as well as your pocketbook will allow you.
Now let's examine what do we do with our habits. Certainly, we only rarely choose them with care. Generally speaking, our habits are formed long before we think about them consciously (if ever) and so we continue with them without considering whether they embellish us or not.
So, I’ve been experimenting. My goal is to age well and to do that I must eat healthily. For sure, all the sugar we consumed when my husband was alive, wouldn’t be classified as healthy.
Until recently, I continued our habit by having something sweet several times a day in addition to the sugar in bread, rice, and pasta. Today, I have ½ cookie at lunch and at dinner. I have also cut back on the bread and pasta, and eliminated the bedtime snack.
Initially, I had to make a conscious decision each time: ½ a cookie or a piece of cake. Now, half a cookie is my choice. I don’t have to think about it - it’s my new habit. I can choose my habits!
Given that success, I am now looking at what I do in other areas of my life. If it is something I do automatically, I ask myself the questions mentioned earlier. The basic question is do I want to continue down that old path or choose something different.
Maybe by choosing my habits carefully and mindfully, I can impact my future and my goal of aging well. That’s powerful and I am going to continue the experiment.