Habit—in our culture, it's practically a dirty word. After all, having a habit connotes all sorts of misbehavior: smoking, boozing, drugging—something that must be broken and banished from existence. But as psychologist Gary McClain, Ph.D., co-author of The Complete Idiot's Guide to Breaking Bad Habits, notes, "There are good habits; there are habits that are just habits. A habit is bad only when it interferes with getting what you want out of life." Only you know when a ritual has gone too far—or when that "occasionally" missed morning run has actually ceased to be. If you've fallen out of a healthy routine, fret not; here are some first-step fixes.
Give it Up: Caffeine
For many people, a cuppa joe (or two, or five) in the morning is part of a ritual, and that's just fine. But if for some reason you've decided to quit or cut back on caffeine (jitters, acidity problems, pregnancy), "the initial step is to identify why you need that daily dose in the first place. Is your dependence physical, mental, emotional, or all of the above?" asks McClain.
"If you need caffeine to ward off headaches or to simply wake up, it well may be a physical addiction," McClain warns. "The key to quelling a physical habit is to wean yourself off. Cut back from five Diet Cokes to four to three." Go slow so as not to invite withdrawal, until your caffeine consumption is at an acceptable level for you and your health. "But nature abhors a vacuum," says McClain. "So find some decaf beverage to fill the holes in your drink schedule." If you used to have a cappuccino each morning, try sipping hot chocolate instead.
Now, if you've always had a cup of Earl Grey with your morning paper, your caffeine habit may just be part of your daily grind. "If you want to kick it, however, you'll want to find out just what need in life that habit is meeting and then look for substitutes. Keep track of your habit," McClain says. "Ask yourself, 'why and when do I need caffeine'?" Maybe you just like a hot drink on a cool day, in which case you can go decaf. "Or maybe you use caffeine when you are bored," explains McClain. "If so, this might point to a deeper issue: Why can't you spend a few minutes with nothing to do?" Understanding this fear of empty time might provide some insight. Then once again, try to find a sub for the caffeine. If Mocha Blasts are part of your afternoon ritual because they get you out of the office for a few minutes, try leaving your desk for a fruit smoothie. If you use caffeine to rev up for a meeting, try jumping jacks instead. Whatever works for you.
Give it Up: Lousy Diet
"We are a nation that espouses a healthy lifestyle yet has one of the worst collective diets in the world," says McClain. All around us are tempting, processed, fat-ridden comfort foods. And even the most disciplined eater can fall into the junk-food trap. "Look at why and when you are tempted to eat unhealthfully," says McClain. "Are you eating for comfort, because you are in a hurry, stressed, nervous, or lonely?" If you can figure that out then you can look for alternatives. Maybe you eat alone and therefore have little incentive to prepare fresh, home-cooked meals. So organize a group of single friends to have weekly feasts. "Have the willpower to create new rituals," McClain adds, whether it be writing a menu or dedicating a few hours every Sunday to prepping easy-to-make healthy meals for the week.
Get Over it: Exercise Slump
You used to wake up at 5:00 A.M. every day, head to the gym, run on the treadmill for 45 minutes, lift weights for a half hour, shower, and then head to work. Now you're lucky if you even use the stairs at the mall. What happened?
"Exercise routines can be such a recipe for failure," says McClain. "You set up really high, totally unrealistic goals and then screw up—as any human being probably would." So rather than beating yourself up about falling off the gym wagon, look at your lapse as a wake-up call: Perhaps your regimen was too ambitious, too monotonous, or just not right for you, McClain says. He suggests you ask yourself some pointed questions: Do morning runs really fit in with the limitations of your lifestyle? Deep down, do you hate aerobics classes? It's okay, admit it. "Instead of beating yourself up, look for alternatives," says McClain. "Read books, meet with a fitness expert. Set up a routine that's realistic—and fun."
Once you've stopped exercising, it can be much harder to restart a routine. "When you exercise you build your body up to a certain level; when you stop it can be physically debilitating," says McClain. "And because we attach such failure to a cessation of a workout, it can be all the harder to start again." But you've got to grit your teeth and, sorry to say, just do it. Choose an exercise regimen that agrees with you, and before you know it you'll have a whole a new habit. (And this is one you won't want—or need—to break.)