Breaking Bad (Habits)

© andrewgenn -
© andrewgenn –

To those of you who watch the show ‘Breaking Bad’, I apologise for luring you to this blog under false pretenses. I may not have tips about how to sell home-made narcotics from a motorhome but hopefully you will still find this post useful…

Habits. Our lives are governed by them. Any action which you routinely perform is a habit, whether you’re aware of it or not. Some habits are developed consciously, whereas most develop organically with time. My concern is largely with those which fall into the latter group. The habits which surreptitiously creep into your daily routine and eventually transform into behaviours we feel we have no control over.

Psychologists say habits are formed by a process called ‘context-dependent-repetition’ of certain behaviours. For example, one day you may decide to drink a hot drink with dinner. Automatically, the brain connects the context (dinner time) to the behaviour (drinking a hot drink). With enough repetition, this connection becomes strengthened until eventually, without much forethought, you automatically drink a hot drink at dinner time. It’s an efficient process developed to allow our brains to perform routine behaviours without much mental exertion. For most of us, the problem arises when the habit formed is a negative one.

Earlier this year I came to the stark realisation that I had developed appalling sleeping habits. I grew increasingly frustrated by my propensity for sleeping late and waking up with just about enough time to eat breakfast, pack my lunch and throw on some clothes to appear somewhat presentable at work.

My level of productivity was dismal and fell drastically with everyday I repeated this cycle. I felt ineffective, inefficient and unproductive. I tried to overcompensate by working into the late hours of the night, but my concentration span would quickly diminish and as a result, all the work I produced was substandard. I eventually reached breaking point. I saw wasted hours turn into days, weeks and eventually months and dreaded the idea of them turning to years. I needed to break the habit. But I had no clue where to begin.

In a procrastinatory jaunt at work (I like to call them procrastintory jaunts rather than moments of distraction to appease my guilty conscience; don’t judge me), I stumbled across a blog intriguingly titled ‘The 5am challenge’. The blog writer chronicled his feelings and experiences as he attempted to wake up at 5am everyday for 21 days.

Why 21?

21 days struck me as an odd number (both literally and figuratively). Why not a month? Why not 28 days? After some extensive academic research (aka Google), I learnt that there is a long standing belief that 21 days is the amount of time it takes to form any habit; good or bad. For every habitual behaviour you currently exhibit, it is reputed to have formed from 21 consecutive days of repeating that particular action or behaviour.

The problem is, many of us notice our bad habits then make dramatic proclamations that we will simply quit the bad habit for good. This method works periodically but eventually the habit slowly resurfaces, usually attached with a feeling of failure and despair. We then magnify the power of the habit on our lives and label it an intrinsic, unchangeable element of our nature. We say things like ‘I’m just not a morning person. I simply can’t resist a smoke during the day. I lack the will power to eat healthily. I just can’t exercise in the evenings’.

We become so fixated on the magnitude of the habit and it’s impact on our lives that we consider it stronger than our ability to alter our behaviours. So we don’t. We sustain the bad habits while lamenting their presence in our lives. We seek a ‘secret’ cure to changing these habits, and consider those who can a different breed. Guess what? They’re not. They just have a different tactic.

The hypothesis

By repeating new habits in the place of old ones, we should be able to programme our brains into replacing the old with the new. Or so the theory goes…

The plan

In my frustration with my sleeping pattern, I decided to undertake an experiment to see whether the results would support or falsify this hypothesis. I decided that for 21 days I would wake up at 4.30 am and for the first hours of the day, attempt to do the work I had previously failed to accomplish. I aimed to gain more time in the morning, whilst ensuring I didn’t sacrifice my daily recommended hours of sleep. After some sage advice from my sister, I decided that perhaps 4.30am was slightly unrealistic and settled for 5am. I made the decision on Thursday 7th February and decided to start on Friday 8th. The procrastinator in me knew that if I didn’t start as soon as possible, I would shelf the idea away in my mental drawer of useful tips and never put it to use.

The experiment

In order for me to realistically wake up at 5am, I knew I had to change my late sleeping times. In order to get 7-71/2 hours of sleep (the length of time I need to sleep to feel remotely human throughout the day), I would have to be asleep by 9.30-10:00pm. Which meant I would have to physically be in my bed by 9-9.30pm. Once I had settled on a sleeping routine, I then had to decide what I would do with the extra hours I gained in the morning. I decided I would wake up at 5, do some work from 5:30 – 6:30, eat breakfast and prepare lunch from 6:30-6:45 and then do some bible study from 6:45-7:25. This meant that before I left the house I should have regained 2 hours of my day, and by the time I got to work, be rid of that groggy 9am feeling.

Every morning I made a note of the time I woke up, and did this everyday until the 21st day. Some days were harder than others. Some days I would go to sleep by 9pm, and wake up refreshed and ready to face the day at 5. However, some days were more difficult. There were days where I would wrestle with my desire to stay awake and watch some ratchet TV, participate in amusing Whatsapp group conversations or read a book late into the night. I had to make the disciplined decision to turn away from my laptop, phone or book and go to sleep.

The results

Surprisingly, over time it began to feel natural to wake up at 5:00. I started to feel awake even when I skipped my morning cup of coffee (caffeine addiction – bad habit number 2?). The days where I would wake up at 6:45 -7:00am and grapple with clothes and food before I left the house started to seem like a distant memory.

My productivity shot through the roof. For an hour a day I was able to work with no distractions on tasks I had been putting off for months. I never missed breakfast. I rarely bought food from the work cafe as I had time to make lunch. I saved money. My days began to seem more structured and more orderly. My sleep became more regular meaning I felt less tired throughout the day. My energy levels felt higher than ever before, and I began walk 3 miles (to and from the station) everyday instead of catching the bus. Soon, 5am became my natural wake up time.

2 months later and the habit has now become part of my routine. I wake up between 5-5:30 everyday now and I can’t imagine a time where I didn’t. There are times when I see friends/family, go on outings or travel late into the night where it is simply impossible to wake up at 5am. After the initial 21 days, I learnt how to be flexible to accommodate my social life. However, the occasions where I wake up after 5am are now exceptions rather than the rule. I broke my bad habit not by falsely ambitious, unrealistic goals, but simply by replacing it with a better habit.

If you have any bad habits you’ve been desperately trying to break to no avail, I encourage you to try this method. You may be initially sceptical but eventually the results will speak for themselves. Once you’ve broken one bad habit, you will gain the confidence to break others. In theory, you can train yourself to replace all your bad habits with better ones. You can be more productive, more effective and more efficient. All you have to do is start.

If this has motivated you to break some bad habits, here are a few tips which helped me along the way:

1. Start now! – As soon as you make the decision to create a new habit, do it! Don’t wait for a new week, or the day after tomorrow; start as soon as you can to avoid procrastination.

2. Don’t give up – There are some days where you’ll be able to do it and some days where you may not. Instead of declaring the whole task a failure, write it off as a bad day, and continue the next day as normal.

3. Mark the date – Whether in your personal diary or on a calendar, mark the date your 21 day challenge will end. Ensure it’s somewhere you can see it everyday so you always have the goal in mind. Also, tick off everyday you perform the action successfully. It will give you a great sense of accomplishment and motivate you to carry on.

But my most important tip has to be the first, start NOW!


Your actions become your habits,
Your habits become your values,
Your values become your destiny.”
― Mahatma Gandhi

Change your habits and you may change your destiny…

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