Dr Wayne Dyer wrote, "You leave old habits behind by starting with the thought, ‘I release the need for this in my life’." Thinking about habits, and my bad ones instantly spring to mind: not exercising, overspending, dating unavailable men, and so on. Which is not to say that I don’t have some good habits, and – thankfully - I have also come a long way since I would beat myself up for my bad ones. These days, I am more forgiving of my fallible human self: OK, Hedley, you haven’t exercised in weeks – no problem, have a go tomorrow. I have learned that, far from being a motivational strategy, self-flagellation only makes things worse. After all, I am a perfectionist, and if I’m already failing at something, well hell, I’m going to want to fail at it perfectly.
That’s the key to habits, good and bad. They aren’t about doing something perfectly; they are just about doing it. Again and again. Now for a perfectionist, who thinks if you’re going to do anything, you have to do it well or not at all, this is a mind bender. It’s why I couldn’t handle golf. One afternoon spent searching scrub for a little white ball turned me right off. It didn’t occur to me that most golfers aren’t much good to start with.
Take perfectionism out of the equation and forming a good habit isn’t hard. In fact, it requires exactly the same elements as forming a bad one – time and persistence. When you perform an action repetitively, you form new neural pathways in your brain. The more you do it, the stronger the pathway becomes, and eventually the pathway is ingrained and the action becomes unconscious. This is why it’s not enough to just stop a bad habit; you have to replace it with a better one and create a new neural pathway. Unless you give your brain another option, it reverts to the old habit. As an example, I decided to meditate daily (new good habit). I put my clock outside my bedroom, which forced me to get up rather than press the snooze button (old bad habit). Eventually, getting up to meditate became normal, and now I do it without thinking – even though I am far from perfect at it.