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How I broke with destructive rituals and habits, Part 3

My last two blog posts dealt with two questions. First of all: Why are habits so important to us humans? And secondly: What preconditions must be met if I want to break destructive rituals?

But I haven’t answered the crucial question yet: How I actually managed to get rid of undesirable habits.

But before we go any further: I couldn’t have done it without outside help. My psychologist, with whom I have spoken frequently in the post-career period, was a great support. Breaking with bad habits is a huge challenge.

This is also due to the fact that you can never look at the activity itself in isolation. While it is true that a smoker is often addicted to nicotine, she is equally fond of the situation in which smoking a cigarette puts her: the cigarette gives her a break from work, or a sociable moment with other smokers outside the restaurant.

However, this connection between activity and context is also an opportunity: if you want to change your behaviour, you can change the context. It is well known that smokers who want to give up their vice are twice as successful when they start doing it during their holidays. As a general rule, those who strive for change have the best chance at times of major life changes. After a serious illness, a divorce or a change of job, you are often forced to find a new direction anyway. This also applies if you fall in love or make a new circle of friends. You rethink your behaviour, discard old habits, and acquire new ones.

In my case, the big turning point – retirement from elite sport – was long behind me. But it was also that change that turned important habits into annoying ones. There was so much I wanted to get rid of that I realised: I couldn’t change everything at once. If I spent all day trying to change my way of thinking, I'd fail. So I took each destructive habit one after another; first of all, the stress in the shower. For the first time in my life, I wanted to be able to enjoy a shower without thinking about what I would do next.

One trick in particular helped me: when I noticed that my thoughts were moving away from the shower, to my to-do list, I tried to be aware of an external stimulus. The smell of the shower gel, the water drumming onto my shoulders, my wet hair. I was amazed at how much energy such a shower suddenly gave me: I’d been washing myself with that shower gel for years, but I’d forgotten how good it smelt. For years, I’d let water patter onto my shoulders, lost in thought, but I hadn’t noticed how good it felt.

So I gradually got rid of a whole series of bad habits. And if I still find myself unhappy in the evening because I only see what I haven’t done – then I consciously sit down and make a list of things that I have achieved. Sometimes the list is very short, but that’s fine. After all, if there’s one thing you learn when you start to get rid of bad habits: it’s the small steps that count.


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