The ‘Refrain but Don’t Repress’ Approach to Destroying Bad Habits

September 18, 2015 by  
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As human beings, we have many good habits that we’ve formed and held onto in our lives and then there are some bad habits that we’d really like to dump. Like most of us, you have probably observed and experienced how very difficult it is to change bad habits, whether the bad habit is overeating, overworking, sleeping too much or too little, watching too much TV, checking our email or text compulsively or some even worse habit or addiction.

In the last few weeks I’ve been reading an incredible book that I believe sheds tremendous light on habits including how to form good ones and how to break bad ones. The book by Pema Chodron is entitled Living Beautifully. I must admit that even though I’ve formed lots of good habits that have led to some very wonderful and rewarding successes in parts of my life, I’ve also had some bad habits that have hurt me, and it’s been so very frustrating for me to try to break or change the bad ones only to fail and fall back into them. But Pema’s book has some real answers and directions that, so far, seem to be a quite a breakthrough.

First of all, she outlines that part of the reason we have trouble breaking bad habits is because we are too hard on ourselves.  What most of us do when we end up doing something that we’ve tried to stop doing, is to get mad at ourselves, beating ourselves up mentally, then we try to repress our thinking and whatever we did that broke our promise to ourselves. She strongly suggests that instead, we come to recognize that we are fundamentally good rather than fundamentally flawed.

Probably Pema’s biggest lesson for us is a bit surprising. She suggests that if we are trying to break a bad habit, we need to think hard on refraining from doing what we promised ourselves but DON’T repress it. She goes on to say that many bad habits come from us trying to escape from uncertainty and fear in our lives in particular situations.  So when we are faced with the desire to fall into that bad habit, we need to examine our thinking to see what led us to that point and then just try to refrain from that action but not repress those thoughts.

Pema has science backing her up on this issue.  She says “Science is demonstrating that every time we refrain but don’t repress, new neural pathways open up in the brain. In not taking the old escape routes, we’re predisposing ourselves to a new way of seeing ourselves, a new way of relating to the mysteriously unpredictable world in which we live.” And in the process we are hard wiring our brain to do the right thing automatically.

What I learned from Pema is already working well on a couple bad habits that I’ve been trying to break for years and I am so pleased!! Try it yourself and you may well see what I mean and find success.

A Daily Commitment to Better Health

April 19, 2013 by  
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In early March I was on my way back to Kauai to spend the rest of the winter when we had a long layover in Los Angeles. Unfortunately I had left Dr. Lustig’s book “Fat Chance” at my Salt Lake City office, so I wandered down to the airport bookstore for a copy and stumbled across Daniel Amen’s book “Use Your Brain to Change Your Age”. There is a lot of good stuff in his book including many before and after brain scans of people that turned around bad habits and behaviors both in eating and exercising. The huge difference in those brain scans really got my attention but what stuck with me the most was the story Amen tells about 52 year old Andrew McGill and what he did to end up with a “younger brain, a sharper mind, and a happier life.”

Andrew McGill is a doctor who had totally let himself go and was in poor health (which just goes to show that even being a medical professional does not insure great health.) His brain scan reflected his poor physical state, looking like the scan of a much older man. Daniel Amen says “it could be attributed to a number of causes: alcohol; drugs; environmental toxins, such as mold or organic solvents; infections; a lack of oxygen; or a significant medical problem like severe anemia or low thyroid.” On top of these other possible contributors to his poor health, Dr. McGill weighed 289.5 pounds, which I’m sure was also a major contributing factor.

To cut to the chase and the real heart of the story, McGill had one day “found himself lecturing a diabetic patient about the importance of nutrition, losing weight, and exercise. On the way home he thought to himself, ‘Andy, what a hypocrite you are! When are you going to stop playing around with your own health?’” It wasn’t until later, in November 2006, that McGill finally made a deep, committed vow to never to miss a day of exercising. That was five years ago. Surprisingly, he has kept that promise, not missing a single day. Ever.

Wow! Just … wow! That kind of commitment really made an impression on me. And he was paid well for his commitment. He lost 100 pounds and a new scan showed the brain of a much younger and healthier man. Now, as I mentioned last week, exercise is not the only thing you need to lose weight and be healthy. Dr. McGill also stopped drinking alcohol, which contributes a huge amount of sugar to our diets, among other healthy changes to achieve these results.

The thing is his story was enough for me to make that same commitment to exercise every single day. Truthfully, it’s not that big a deal. There are so many things you can do to get in your exercise each day, things that don’t even require equipment or a trip to the gym—a lunch time walk, a morning run, 10 minutes jogging up and down the stairwell at work, calisthenics on your living room floor while watching your favorite show, etc. The important thing is to do it and if you make a habit of exercising in some manner every single day you will become healthier, especially when combined with healthier eating.

Since reading that story I have only missed one day of exercise and only because my wife had surgery. I have decided that I am going to keep it up for at least one full year … that’s when I hit age 70! And I know I can and will do it. So why don’t you? Is there any reason not to? No. But there are so many, many reasons to take on this simple challenge, aren’t there?

Repetition is the Best Teacher

April 15, 2011 by  
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My good friend Paul J. Meyer (who sadly passed away a while ago) used to always say “Don’t read 1,000 books but choose 100 of the very best books and read them over and over again.” Spaced repetition is how we remember and makes it easier for us to practice what we learn in our daily lives because the ideas become ingrained and natural.

This idea hit me hard recently when I realized that the basic concept also applied to other things such as my tennis game. I had mastered the best way to hit a forehand many years ago but over the years I stopped practicing that technique, just stopped doing what I knew I should do, and, sure enough, my forehand went to hell. When I got into competing, I had to relearn my forehand all over again. Relearning was hard but it did make a huge difference in my game (Watch out Roger Federer!) On the other hand (no pun was intended!) I could have skipped that whole trying process by simply revisiting the technique and practicing the points on a regular basis. Learning it once is never enough.

This idea is the same whether it’s repeatedly reading books that teach you how to better your life, keeping up on a skill, or revisiting places or people that inspire and energize your spirit. These are all opportunities for learning that if we come back to over and over, we will not forget and will make practicing what we’ve learned a natural and habitual action.