Coaxed downstairs

The stairs can be slow and tiring, but they're the only safe way down.  Niagara Falls, May 2009

The stairs can be slow and tiring, but they’ll get you safely down. Niagara Falls, May 2009

“Habit is habit, and not to be flung out of the window by any man, but coaxed downstairs a step at a time.”Mark Twain

I’ve come to respect the immense power of habit to influence our lives for better or worse.  In everything from eating to sleeping to managing money to how we interact with each other at home, at work or on the road, habits can make or break our health, our sanity and our happiness.

To me, the very word “habit” sounds boring and unappealing, but good habits are forceful allies in the craziness of life.  They are sort of like the “autopilot” that keeps us functioning by taking over when our reason is distracted or assaulted.

Bad habits, on the other hand, can sabotage our best intentions and most genuine efforts.  With incredible tenacity, they mock our optimism and self-improvement ideals, leaving us feeling foolish for even trying to overcome them.  Addicts, of course, experience this more keenly than those of us who have less obvious compulsions, but I don’t know anyone who doesn’t have at least a few detrimental tendencies they’d like to overcome.  For example, I have a bad habit of eating Cheez-It crackers right out of the (extra large) box, which I’m doing right now as I write this, despite knowing that healthier snack options would be better for me.

I think Twain hit on an important secret here.  While we hear the occasional story of a successful “cold turkey” setting aside of a bad habit, most often we have to be patient with ourselves and others when it comes to breaking bad habits, and take it a step at a time.  It’s usually not successful for me to make unrealistic goals such as “I will never eat anymore Cheez-It crackers as long as I live” or “as long as I weigh more than five pounds over my ideal weight” (which in my case appears to be the same thing).  I can start with closing the box right now (okay, okay!) even though it’s not empty yet.  Not quite, anyway.

Then I can move on to other steps, such as NOT BUYING any Cheez-It crackers in the first place.  I was doing pretty good with this, until they came out with Zingz.  Oh, my.  Talk about unplanned complications! If you have the same problem with Cheez-It crackers that I do, take my advice; don’t even THINK about trying Zingz. It’s like coaxing yourself down three flights and then taking an elevator back up six.

I’ve often heard that it’s easier to let go of a bad habit if we replace it with a good one.  In my experience, that’s true.  So in just a minute, I’m going to go to the kitchen and get a mandarin orange and another cup of tea.  Want to join me?

Admittedly, there’s nothing glamorous or exciting about slow, incremental approaches, but they do work, as long as we keep moving in the right direction.  Sometimes we don’t see how far we’ve come until we look back and realize that we’re a respectable distance from where we started.  That gives us a boost to morale that can keep us going, as long as we don’t let ourselves get overwhelmed with the idea of the long distance that still lies ahead.

If your bad habit is too big and heavy and obstreperous to be heaved out the window, try coaxing it down one step at a time.  Sooner or later you’ll get to the ground, and you’ll enjoy a much-deserved break — and maybe even some congratulations and applause.  See you there!

Almost one year ago today:

Slowly — but painlessly!

This post was first published seven years ago today. The original post, comments and photo are linked, along with two other related posts, below. These links to related posts, and their thumbnail photos, do not appear in the blog feed; they are only visible when viewing the individual posts by clicking on each one. I have no idea why, nor do I know how they choose the related posts. That’s just the way WordPress does things.


  1. Good morning, Julia!
    I love this combo: true confessions plus good advice!
    Maybe I should try a substitute for my annual bag-of-cheetos-while-lamenting-doing-my-taxes!

    • By a remarkable coincidence (since this was the first time in a long time) I ate an entire bag of cheetos myself yesterday, and I wasn’t even doing taxes! Granted, they were the organic all-natural version, but still.

  2. Oh, the topic is so intense! Most people are constantly trying to break some of their bad habits, well at least they’re planning on doing so. I like the idea of replacing a bad habit with a good one! To me, “the chain reaction” is helpful as well. It’s when you create a sequence of good and pleasant habits and they support each other because they go hand in hand. For example, if someone is trying to teach themselves to do 5 minute meditation after their morning cup of coffee

    • Hi Marta, thanks for the comment! I agree! It’s so important to replace the bad habit with something good, and to provide whatever supports you can to help the process along. Even neutral habits are so hard to break, such as when you move to a new home or workplace and keep looking for something in the new location and going by default to the place that seems closest to where that thing used to be kept (I’ve done this so many times) or flipping a light switch during a power outage, just because it’s something we don’t even think about doing. Habits are POWERFUL and a chain reaction approach is an excellent tool to help reinforce learning a new replacement for a deeply-entrenched habit that is not helpful.

      • That is so right! Every time I notice that I’m doing something on autopilot mode, I try to stop and think if I’m going to benefit from this default mode.

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