Rinse Lather Repeat

On habits.

A settled or regular tendency or practice, esp. one that is hard to give up.

There are good habits and bad habits, beneficial habits and destructive habits. I think it is quite natural for people to fall easily into habits, we are, after all, creatures of habit.

The world around us is one of habits, if you think about it, giving the world we live in a certain, habitual rhythm. The sun habitually rises and sets, providing us with a steady, march of day followed by night, followed by day, followed by night. Winter habitually gives way to spring, some years, more stubbornly than others, spring gives way to summer, summer to fall, fall to winter. The dates are without variation, the weather falls into it’s habitual pattern soon before or after the metronome of dates.

There are rhythms within us, inhalation and exhalation, the thrumming of our pulse, both exceedingly good habits to maintain. But with all that is rhythmical, seemingly habitual in our world and in our lives, there are those rhythmic behaviors that we fall prey to that are not so “mandated” as the seasons of the year or the habitual, beating of our hearts. There are habits we adopt that we are, even against our verdant beliefs, in control of.

Boulevard - San Francisco - a $45 filet mignon
Boulevard – San Francisco – a $45 filet mignon

As I write, I am fully absorbed in two of my most cherished, wonderful, blissful and potentially self-destructive habits; wine and chocolate. And this after an $85 meal consisting of a glass of sparkling wine, a seven ounce filet mignon and one ice cream bon bon. This week finds me in San Francisco for work, I mean, how else could one person spend $85 on a single, modest meal? I am not really hungry, nor am I thirsty, but here I sit with my square of exotic dark chocolate and my tumbler of red wine. It is a habit and one I fully embrace and nurture. Now, if it were a bottle of wine and a whole bar of chocolate, it would be a very bad habit, maintaining moderation is the only reason I allow myself these two habits. I have had to have little pep talks with myself, on occasion, when I find the whole bar of chocolate gone in one sitting, or that one glass of wine becomes one bottomless glass of wine that ends up draining a 750 ml bottle. My little pep talk is no more than a warning to myself that if I don’t maintain moderation, than abstinence is the only other alternative. That usually does the trick. Some habits are so dangerous that giving them up entirely is the only, solution, like cigarettes, or IV drugs. Others are only bad habits when done in excess, like chocolate and wine.

Red wine and dark chocolate - a habit I'm quite fond of.
Red wine and dark chocolate – a habit I’m quite fond of.

I have always been sort of an “all or nothing” type of person. For example, I love Oreos, but once the package of Oreos is opened, I will just plough through them, three at a time, until the whole package is gone. Knowing this about myself, once I finally decided I needed to do something about my long-term health, has been very instrumental in modifying my behavior. I just don’t buy Oreos. They’re pretty icky once you know what the ingredients all translate to.

My Oreo habit came about from watching my dad and his Oreo habit. Every morning, at 5:00 am, he would wake up, go downstairs and make a pot of Folgers coffee. While the coffee was brewing, he’d have precisely three Oreos, which my mother “hid” in a copper chafing dish on the back counter, that I could reach only by dragging, noisily, a chair over to stand up on. I always got caught. When the coffee was finished percolating in the Farberware percolator my mother still uses to this day, he’d pour his into the same old ceramic mug, place it on the same old, coffee stained, tray that had some illegible, comedic saying on it, then he’d pour coffee into the other same, old mug and place it on the other same, old, coffee stained tray. He’d carry both trays upstairs, splashing a little coffee out, to further stain and make even more illegible, the same old trays. He and my mom would prop themselves up on their pillows, drink their coffee and listen to the news on the radio. I remember, as a toddler, creeping into their room and being allowed to drink the last, bitter drops from the bottom of their same old mugs, my mom took hers black, my dad with a couple of spoons full of sugar, I remember the distinctive sound of him stirring the same old spoon against the ceramic of that same, old mug. I think that’s what woke me up in the first place. Clink, clink, clink. Then I remember the chafing dish full of Oreos and the unwritten rule, leave at least three for Dad for the next morning, or else. That is how I came to have an Oreo habit. And a black coffee habit. I’ve replaced the Oreos with a single square of organic, dark chocolate a day. I still enjoy a cup of black coffee every morning, and life without it is unthinkable.

I used to drink no less than three regular, twelve-ounce cans of Coca Cola a day, from the time I was a teenager until I was almost forty years old. Can you imagine? I made a concerted effort, at some point, to switch to Diet Coke, but then there were no limits because there were no calories. I knew in the depths of my soul that Diet Coke was probably far worse than regular Coke, really, just a chemical cocktail. And that was a correct assumption. Thankfully, I came to my senses and have replaced that bad habit with drinking good, old water. I can have as much as I want, too!

I used to eat no less than a pound of pretzels a day, fooling myself into thinking this was a “healthier” habit than potato chips or French fries. True, there may be less fat, but certainly no fewer calories, salt, or simple carbohydrates. I think back on that in utter disbelief. Don’t get me wrong, I still love pretzels, but I know no moderation with them, so, like Oreos, I just don’t buy them. Besides, my life absent enriched flour has been so enriching, I am convinced that enriched flour is of Satan.

A habit, in our mind, translates to a behavior that we justify in some way, a behavior that we feel powerless to change, or that we think we enjoy too much to really want to change. Many habits are very destructive to our health, at a minimum, or to a productive, meaningful lifestyle, at worst. Think about morbid obesity; that is fueled by sheer habit, justified under the guise of genetic tendencies and pre-disposition, which can be overridden with a concerted effort and, honest, personal commitment. Really. Not easily, but they can. Drug addiction is a result of nothing more than habit. There, again, hereditary tendencies can be the scapegoat but, again, they can be overcome with deliberate, conscious effort. I have a hard time thinking of a destructive behavior that doesn’t have a “simple” bad habit at it’s root, and genetics or hereditary as it’s justification.

I come from a “genetic” tendency to overeat. I come from a “hereditary” likelihood to have addictive behaviors, like alcoholism. I have seen myself headed for a life of destructive behavior and the resulting health problems. I chose otherwise, quite deliberately. I’ve read book after book after book on health and diet and fitness, decade after decade, without impact. For years I shunned the advice, thinking I could, somehow, get away with maintaining my preferred dietary and exercise methods, or lack thereof, and keep my good health. I saw my father suffer for years from heart disease; a five way bypass, angioplasties, a life of strategic administration of prescription drugs to keep congestive heart failure and kidney failure in a strange, harmonic balance, extending his life for years beyond what should have been, but with mitigated quality. I was on the expressway to a similar fate for my own golden years. At some point, I just stopped. Something clicked and I chose to jump off that train and on to the train headed in the opposite direction.

I decided, one day, to exchange my bad habits for good ones. Just like that. The books I read that said I could learn to eat food absent refined sugar became plausible. The books that led credence to the fact that enriched flour and high fructose corn syrup were poisons to our bodies became my source of inspiration and strength. Books suggesting that exercise and clean eating were a way of life that was enjoyable, pleasurable, and fulfilling became my creed. The once absurd suggestion that plain yogurt could be something, once I became accustomed to it, much more delicious than sweetened yogurt became a reality. The idea that a carrot, or three, could be a “sweet” afternoon snack instead of cookies became truth. This, of course, did not happen overnight, it took time and it took a long-term commitment. And courage. And determination. And sheer desire. And ridicule from friends and family who simply did not understand, or, more likely, chose not to understand.

It is said, to create a habit, you must repeat an action twenty-one consecutive times. Rinse, lather, repeat. I don’t know if there is any scientific merit behind that, I could Google it and find out, I’m sure, but, hey, so could you! I tend to think there is some credence to it, based on my own experience. So, if there is a good habit we want to adopt, like going to the gym, or walking or running every day, or eating carrots instead of cookies when we crave something sweet, all we have to do is MAKE ourselves do it for twenty-one days and it will be a habit, something we don’t think we can live without. Rinse, lather, repeat. I swear it’s true. Once I decided I was going to the gym to do cardio several times a week, and I did so for a few weeks, a missed day was like a day without Coca Cola a few years ago. Excruciating! For me and everyone around me! Have you ever crossed a cola drinker who hasn’t had their daily requirement of caffeine and refined sugar? Pretty ugly, right? I’m that way without cardio. The love of my life can tell, within about the first two sentences of a conversation, whether I’ve been to the gym or not. Believe it. Rinse, lather, repeat.

Am I so brazen as to suggest that deep-seated, supposedly genetic or hereditary behaviors, aka habits, can be changed by no more than sheer will? Yes. I am that brazen. I am of the “no excuses” ilk. If you want something badly enough, you’ll do whatever it takes. If you don’t really want it, in your heart, in your soul, if you don’t want it like breath, you won’t do whatever it takes. You have to decide to want to rid yourself of destructive habits before you can even attempt to change them. Otherwise, you’re wasting your time, your money, and all the wishing in the world. Wishing you were thin, wishing you could give up smoking, wishing you could walk up a flight of stairs will never, ever, make it happen. You have to want it from the depths of your being, with every cell, every fiber, every molecule.

I found that for someone who has a tendency towards addictive behavior, like me, once the decision to change has finally been made, replacing a bad habit with a good habit made it more palatable. Carrots for cookies. I am a very mechanical person, I am also very visual. For me, to get started, it helped to write the bad habit down, draw a circle around it, then a slash through it. I would do this every morning, in my journal. Next to the crossed out “bad” habit, I’d write down the “good” habit I wanted to replace it with and decorate it somehow; draw a sunshine around it, a rainbow over it, circle it in a ring of stars. I would set up a reward system, of some sort. I’m all about “making deals”. When I was first starting out on my journey to a healthier lifestyle, I’d tell myself that if I worked out and ate clean all day, I could watch an episode of “Friends”. Otherwise, no “Friends”. I’ve watched the entire series of “Friends” several times over, and lost fifty pounds, and run a half marathon since then. The point is, we figure out how we are wired, individually, we figure out what will work, we make a decision, a plan, implement it and rinse, lather, repeat, until the undesired habit is replaced with a desirable habit.

We are creatures of habit, we are natural beings, we have rhythms, like nature; the days, the seasons. To change bad habits into good habits we need to keep the rhythm, just replace the habit. I’m not saying it’s easy, little that is worthwhile is. But it is so worthwhile. Replacing bad habits with good, one at a time, by following a method you find that works for you (so, maybe you don’t like “Friends” that much, find your own reward) is very empowering, habit-forming, even! It takes a little time, some tenacity, a lot of will power and is worth every bit of it. For every bad habit replaced with good, we are further empowered, stronger, and eager for the next challenge. It becomes easier, and before long, replacing bad habits with good is, itself, a habit. We embrace change, seek change, we crave change, we are addicted to change. We evolve. Twenty-one days, they say. Rinse, lather, repeat.

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