My friend Carly was having an 11 PM rant session about how she never sleeps well. She took a long pull off her vente double-shot espresso and whined, “Why can’t I just go to sleep like normal people?” Granted, there are lots of potential causes for insomnia, but downing enough caffeine before bed to make your fillings hum is probably fairly high on the list. When I very gently and circumspectly suggested that caffeine before bed has been known … in some cases … to keep people awake she responded, “no, no, c-c-c-caffeine doezzzzn’t affect me that way.” Hmmm.
Like ninjas, bad habits lose much of their power when we see them clearly. Start by bringing that bad habit out into the deadly light of day. The first step in changing a bad habit is to own up to it. So what bad habits would you like to change? Do you begin major research papers two days before they’re due? Does your calendar get less of your attention than that jerk who dumped you in seventh grade? Do study sessions with your friends involve in-depth analysis of Grey’s Anatomy or witty observations about just how tough Chuck Norris is (he doesn’t sleep; he waits)? Most of us have loads o’ bad habits, so pick one or two that send you into a spiral of despair on a regular basis. Then grab the writing implement of your choice and chew through these questions…
- When do you do your bad habit (or fail to do it)? For example, if you fail to keep track of important dates, when should you be writing those items down in your calendar? Hint: during the school semester you should be updating that calendar at least as often as you shower…errr…at least once a day, guys. Or, if “studying with friends” is code for “avoiding studying, with friends,” then the bad habit of not focusing during your study session would occur any time you study with friends present.
- What precedes it or leads to it? We’re looking for a pattern here so we can kill the bad habit when it’s still on the way; a stitch in time is worth two in the bush, and all that. If the prof says, “By the way, I’ve decided to move the mid-term-from-Hell to the day BEFORE Spring Break, instead of the day after,” and you think, “Garsh, better mark that down on the calendar; I’ll do that when I get home,” and then you forget … you get the picture.
- Why do you do it? In other words, what’s your motive for engaging in the bad habit? For example; why do you always feel like you need to study with very talkative friends? Why don’t you carry your calendar with you? “I don’t carry my calendar to class, because people might wonder why I have a Smurf’s calendar,” or “Studying with friends is much better than real studying.” Most of our bad habits are rooted in basic and valid desires; in this case, the desire not to be embarrassed or the desire to be entertained. Once we realize what need our bad habit fulfills, we can work on a desirable alternative.
- What does your bad habit cost you? This is key! Do not skip this step. Think through the chain of consequences that stem from your bad habit. For example, “I spend more time talking than studying SO I end up having to study later on my own SO I don’t have time to get enough sleep SO I’m tired all day SO I can’t concentrate in class SO my notes stink SO I have to go talk to that holier-than-thou TA who makes me feel like a moron SO I feel stupid and upset SO I take it out on my current boyfriend/girlfriend SO We always get in fights, etc.” You may have to do several different chains to truly capture all the consequences of the bad habit. You’ll be amazed at how big an effect the habit has on your life!
Now we need to identify a good habit to take the place of the bad habit.