What wearing a clay helmet taught me about bad habits

As the assessor from the school board quizzed me about my pastimes and interests, I knew well enough to omit a few details. Bleeding all over the place during the interview was bad enough. If he knew about half the moronic things I did with my siblings, there’s no way I’d have qualified for the gifted program. 

Because growing up, we had all sorts of bad habits that got us into trouble. Indeed, no matter how hard my poor mother tried to steer her eight children in the right direction, we seemed determined to return home for dinner muddy, bloody or both.

For example, I had the bad habit of not wearing sunscreen in the summer. Without fail, a fun day at the beach would lead 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.

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

Those outings also often involved me and my cousins tearing through areas filled with poison ivy. And regardless of 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 was an inability to back down from a dare. “Double dares” were even harder to resist. And “triple 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. 

One dare I readily accepted stands out as particularly idiotic. On a hot summer day back at Grandma’s beach, I was playing with a handful of my cousins in the nearby gully. (I’ll go out on a limb and say we were all probably sunburnt, had thorns in our feet, and at least one of us was going home with a poison ivy rash.)

As we hopped between rocks and logs while mosquitoes ate us alive, we happened upon an exceptionally mucky pit of clay. “I dare you to stick your head in there,” one of my cousins taunted.

I wish I could say there was more goading and peer 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. 

Nobody ditches Josh, I thought, pulling 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, 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 I zigzagged along. 

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

I know not wearing sunscreen will mean a painful burn. That ordering another bottle of wine means my body will hate me in the morning. 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.

So if I know the negative consequences of my bad habits, why is it so difficult to kick them? And on the flip side, why do I struggle to maintain good habits when I know what the positive consequences will be? If I know going for a run or fixing that leaky faucet will make me feel amazing and productive, why don’t I get my butt off the couch?

Part of the problem is that our behaviour tends to be governed by effects that are immediate and close at hand. Sunscreen is greasy and annoying. Nuking a frozen pizza is easier than making a salad. The deadline isn’t for another week and there are new episodes of The Mandalorian airing. Too often, quick and easy trumps pragmatic and prudent.

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

Sometimes those habits fall in the annoying-but-ultimately-harmless category, like chewing your nails. But others can be downright dangerous — like smoking or shoving your head into clay — making it important to find ways to shake them. 

Habits would certainly play a big role after my cancer diagnosis. A few, I needed to change. The toll the chemo took on my liver meant I had to give up alcohol. I had to bid farewell to fast food as well, since a dodgy burger could wreak havoc on my weakened immune system. I also had to develop some new good habits, from going to bed earlier and washing my hands more frequently to building my meds into the daily schedule.

Breaking bad habits — and creating good ones

Changing ingrained behaviour is tough, but not impossible. Here are a few ideas to get you started.

Set the stage — Trying to steer clear of junk food? Skip the chips 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.

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.

Train your brain — Habits become so automatic that we often don’t even notice when we’re engaged in them. Without realizing it, you’re unconsciously slouching or polishing off an entire bag of chips. Mindfulness helps you switch off the autopilot and puts you back in the driver’s seat. Practise being present and aware of your actions, especially when you know you’re going to be in a situation that will trigger your bad habits.

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 on 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 motivation go for a run in the morning? Do it with a friend to make getting out of bed easier.

Remind yourself of the rewards and consequences — We humans have notoriously short memories, forgetting how painful that sunburn was or how awful that fifth bottle of beer made you feel the next day. Whether it’s having a friend remind you that pizza gives you a stomach ache or hanging a photo of you crossing the finish line to remember how amazing it feels to complete a race, find ways to keep the aftermath of your actions top of mind.


Next: Chapter 8 — The cannonball: What Meghan in the mud taught me about letting go

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Did you know? This resource is also available as a print book called “Simply Blunderful: A cancer survivor’s illustrated guide to flaming tennis balls, camping catastrophes and the many obstacles life throws our way.” Click here to learn more and order your copy.

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Chapter 1 — The coin flip: What a cancer diagnosis taught me about life exploding into a bazillion pieces

Chapter 2 — The slip-up: What a puddle of puke taught me about asking for help

Chapter 3 — The Great Burning: What a million paper monsters taught me about things going up in smoke

Chapter 4 — The crayon candle: What the lamest science project ever taught me about putting in the extra effort

Chapter 5 — The Christmas concert: What starring as a tree taught me about finding my voice

Chapter 6 — The “Super Something:” What blood and glue fumes taught me about vulnerability

Chapter 7 — The dare: What wearing a clay helmet taught me about bad habits

Chapter 8 — The cannonball: What Meghan in the mud taught me about letting go

Chapter 9 — The fireball: What a flaming tennis ball taught me about nurturing imagination

Chapter 10 — The frying pan: What towel-snapping taboos taught me about pushing your luck

Chapter 11 — The haybale: What a tough day in the barn taught me about having someone to watch your back

Chapter 12 — The babysitting gig: What banshee babies and buttered butts taught me about failing forward

Chapter 13 — The sledgehammer: What a construction job taught me about using the right tools

Chapter 14 — The cement truck: What a misguided act of heroism taught me about good intentions

Chapter 15 — The valet: What a parking disaster taught me about overconfidence

Chapter 16 — The growl: What a wolf in the woods taught me about knowledge and responsibility

Chapter 17 — The shortcut: What a hike through stinging nettles taught me about cutting corners

Chapter 18 — The backpack: What a giant duffel bag taught me about band-aid solutions

Chapter 19 — The big freeze: What camping in a snowstorm taught me about knowing when to quit

Chapter 20 — The snowy gauntlet: What an idiotic bet taught me about redefining success

Chapter 21 — The Christmas tree: What a holiday hunt taught me about overkill

Chapter 22 — The BB gun: What my dad getting shot in the eye taught me about owning up to our mistakes

Chapter 23 — The toboggan hill: What sledding battles taught me about approaching problems from different angles

Chapter 24 — The train: What a trip to the big city taught me about self-sabotage

Chapter 25 — The mushy cauliflower: What dinner in France taught me about the power of words

Chapter 26 — The shopping cart: What an unusual ride to the bar taught me about control

Chapter 27 — The butt clay: What a muddy gully battle taught me about karma

Chapter 28 — The president: What Bill Clinton getting in my way taught me about adaptability

Chapter 29 — The Taipei middle way: What a hostile hostel taught me about moderation

Chapter 30 — The refugee camp: What volunteering in Ghana taught me about digging deeper

Chapter 31 — The bus ride: What a long drive through the mountains taught me about patience

Chapter 32 — The barn: What a Christmas sleepover taught me about keeping your fires stoked

Chapter 33 — The list: What farts and sandwiches taught me about gratitude

Chapter 34 — The birthday: What a surprise celebration in the hospital taught me about self-care

Chapter 35 — The goodbye: What a man named Frank taught me about luck

Chapter 36 — The bloody transformation: What going from negative to positive taught me about change

Chapter 37 — The school of hard knocks: What life’s misadventures taught me about blunderful resilience