How to Break a Bad Habit: Lessons learned from wearing a clay helmet

clay headGrowing up, boyhood and bad habits went hand-in-hand. No matter how hard my mother tried to steer us kids in the right direction, we seemed determined to return home for dinner muddy, bloody or both.

In the summer, I had the bad habit of not wearing sunscreen. Without fail, a fun day at the beach led to deep burns followed by my skin peeling off a week later. We used to see who could remove the largest strip of skin without it breaking. Kind of like trying to peel an orange in one shot, only much, much grosser.
Breaking bad habits - Josh presenting skin to mother

I also had the bad habit of running through the fields and forests around our house barefoot. Inevitably, I’d return home and beg Mom to bust out the tweezers to pull thorns from my feet.

Those outings often involved my cousins and me tearing through gullies and groves filled with poison ivy. And no matter how many times those adventures resulted in oozy, itchy, angry rashes, we’d be back playing in those places again before the last blister popped.

Another bad habit I had as a kid was my inability to back down from a dare. Double-dares were even harder to resist. And double-dog dares? Forget about it. Whether it was peeing on an electric fence or sticking my tongue on a metal pole in February, it didn’t take much for me to succumb to peer pressure.Breaking bad habits - Josh peeing on electric fence

One readily accepted dare stands out as particularly idiotic. On a hot summer day back at Grandma’s beach, a few of my cousins and I were playing in the nearby gully. I can’t remember exactly, but I’ll go out on a limb and say we were sunburnt, had thorns in our feet and at least one of us was going home with poison ivy.

As we hopped between rocks and logs while mosquitoes ate us alive, we noticed an exceptionally mucky clay pit. By this point in the day, we were past the easy-peasy dares of jumping into the gray goop. It was time to kick things up a notch.

“I dare you to stick your head in there,” one of my cousins said to me.

I wish I could say there was a lot more goading and pressure than that. There wasn’t. The muddy gauntlet had been thrown down, and I picked it up without a second thought.

Steadying myself on a fallen tree, I moved into position to perform what may be history’s stupidest headstand ever. The others watched from the gully bank, delighted to have such an easily manipulated clown of a cousin. Of course, the second I dunked my head into the clay, those jerks bolted, howling in laughter as they fled down the trails.Breaking bad habits - Josh dunking head in clay

Nobody ditches Josh, I thought, as I pulled my head from the mud. The chase was on.

However, as I sprinted after them, I began to feel the weight of my bad decisions. Literally. You see, although it’s hard to imagine given the cue ball-nature of my head these days, as a child I had a thick, curly head of hair. And those luxurious locks proved exceptionally effective at trapping massive amounts of heavy mud.

I was essentially wearing a giant clay helmet.

Racing down the trail, I started to lurch to the left and to the right as my pencil neck struggled to support the hefty headpiece. I really need to stop accepting dares, I thought as zigzagged along.Breaking bad habits - Josh wearing clay helmet

In the end, I didn’t catch up to them. Probably for the best. I’m sure seeing me staggering through the bushes like a drunken buffoon with my head encased in clay would only add fuel to the inevitable mockery.

Breaking bad habits

Simple(ton) Living by Josh MartinI know not wearing sunscreen is going to mean a painful burn. That ordering another bottle of wine means my body will hate me tomorrow. That putting off that assignment is going to result in a stressful all-nighter. That accepting moronic dares to dunk my head in a pit of clay is going to lead to trouble.

If we know the negative consequences of our bad habits, why is it so difficult to kick them? And on the flip side, why is it so difficult to reinforce good habits when we know the positive consequences? I know going for a run or fixing that leaky faucet will make me feel amazing and productive. So why is it so hard to get off the couch?

Part of the problem is that our behaviour tends to be governed by effects that are immediate and close-at-hand. Sunblock is greasy and annoying. Fixing the sink requires a trip to Home Depot. Nuking a frozen pizza is easier than making a salad. The deadline isn’t for another week and there are new episodes of Daredevil on Netflix now. In this age of instant gratification, quick and easy tends to trump pragmatic and prudent.

Meanwhile, habits form through repetition. The more they become part of your routine, the harder they are to break. Self-control and prudence are also often competing against a powerful opponent: dopamine. As habits form, your brain releases this pleasure-causing chemical at the whiff of a cigarette or sight of a doughnut, incentivizing bad behaviour.

But don’t despair! Changing ingrained behaviour is tough, but not impossible. Here are a few ideas to get you started.

  1. Set the stage. Trying to steer clear of junk food? Skip the chips and pop aisle at the grocery store and stock the fridge with healthy fruit instead for the next time you get the munchies. Want to make running a regular part of your routine? Invest in a decent pair of shoes and download an app to track your training. Create the conditions for success.
  2. Set realistic goals. Quitting something cold turkey may work for some people, but most of us need a more step-by-step approach. Whatever your habit, don’t sabotage yourself by setting unrealistic goals. For example, eating healthy is a great habit to develop, but a cheat day during the week may actually help make it sustainable. Ease into it.
  3. Train your brain. Habits get so ingrained that we often don’t even notice when we’re engaged in them. Without even realizing it, you’re unconsciously biting your nails or leaving the toilet seat up … again. Mindfulness lets you switch off the autopilot and puts you back in the driver’s seat. Practice being present and aware of your actions, especially when you know you’re going to be in a situation known to trigger your bad habits. (Learn more here)
  4. Lean on your team. Enlist the help of a friend to keep you on track with your habit-breaking or habit-forming goals. Find someone to be your accountability buddy, and ask him or her to regularly check in with your progress. Or have them take a more hands-on role. Want to stop cracking your knuckles? Agree to pay your girlfriend a buck for every infraction. Need some more oomph to get your morning runs moving? Do them with a friend to make getting out of bed easier.
  5. Remind yourself of the rewards and consequences. We humans have notoriously short memories, forgetting how painful that sunburn was or how awful that tenth bottle of beer made you feel the next day. Whether it’s a buddy reminding you how big a stomach ache pizza gives you or hanging a photo of you crossing the finish line to remind you how amazing it felt to complete that race, find ways to remind yourself of the aftermath of your actions.

What are your suggestions for breaking a bad habit? Add them to the comments below!

Like these stories? You’ll find a whole whack of them — more than 50 in fact — in my book Simple(ton) Living: Lessons in balance from life’s absurd moments.

Josh Martin
Josh Martin is the founder and chief blogger at Badge of Awesome. He lives in southwestern Ontario, Canada and is the author of "Misadventure Musings: Lessons learned from life's awesome and absurd moments" and "Going on a Bear Hunt: Five things cancer taught me about overcoming obstacles."

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