The fine art of breaking and re-breaking habits

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Probably one of my most stubborn habits is a liking for fast food.  Not that many years ago, whenever I stepped outside the house there was a high probability of me buying something in a restaurant or coffee shop before returning home.  If not a burger while out shopping, perhaps a coffee and donut on my way to the office the next morning.  It was the rule rather than the exception.  That $20 bill in my wallet had to be spent.

Eating out is an expensive hobby, and if I actually take the time to taste what’s in front of me, and honestly assess it, it usually isn’t as good as home fare.  It isn’t usually the food I’m after, though; it’s the restaurant ambiance, and the feeling of being somewhere because I thought I had to be there.

Thinking back 25-30 years, I can tell you how this started.  I was working in a low-end job by day and doing home renovation and maintenance in the evenings.  Sometimes I got a bit stir-crazy and had to get out of the house for a while, and my daughter and I would walk a few blocks to a neighbourhood restaurant.  Going out for a snack was an actual treat, something that we might do on payday and then not again for another week or two.

As I worked my way up to better and better jobs, and my disposable income increased, eating out became more accessible.  A treat became a reward for finishing a task, and then it became a habit.  It started to feel odd to be in my own kitchen, cooking supper.   when I mentally saw myself somewhere else.  Missing out on that somewhere else could feel quite disturbing at times.  It gave me a sense of incompleteness, a task not yet done.

The good news is that this, and other habits, can be broken.   The first step is to stall on doing it once and do something else instead.  The second step is to get into the habit of stalling for time, making yourself wait a bit longer or deferring to a completely different day.

For example, I had been thinking of going out for coffee and a sweet tonight, and until about 8:00 this evening it was still a possibility.  I started the stalling process at 5:00, right after I got home from work.  Had a short nap.  Cooked supper, so that if I did choose to go out it wouldn’t be for a full meal.  A load of laundry, a bit of writing, a bit of renovation in my office.  Eventually it stopped being “still early”  and started being “too close to bedtime,” and the proposed coffee run just fell off the agenda by itself.

What I’ve noticed is that if you don’t do something regularly, it starts to feel more natural to not do it.  That’s the point where a new habit has established a few roots  — it feels natural, okay, the status quo rather than a deprivation or a punishment.

It is working, because I keep a spreadsheet on all my purchases.  The weekends are still the busiest time for the Eating Out category, but usually there’s only one restaurant visit per day.  I used to have two or three items on Saturdays, breakfast plus at least one meal away from home.  The average spend per visit has also dropped considerably, because most of the time it’s just coffee and something light rather than a full-course meal with dessert.  Instead of stuffing myself silly once for $30, why not three or more coffee runs, spaced over a whole week?

And I can still have coffee at home, after all.  In fact, I’m heading downstairs to do a pour-over decaf, because it is definitely Too Close To Bedtime now.





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