66 days to change: The bad day

I got into a little car accident last week. Thank God no one was hurt. I was turning into traffic,


I got into a little car accident last week. Thank God no one was hurt. I was turning into traffic, my visibility was hindered, I thought I was clear and BANG! His car looked worse than mine. When I got home late that night, after hours on the phone with insurance companies and at the collision centre, I wanted a large glass of wine and a fat slab of chocolate. Instead, I had a glass of sparkling water and a bowl of grapes. No matter how hard I squashed them, the grapes didn’t turn into wine.

No one would criticize me if I’d had wine or chocolate. But that’s not the point.

How many of us, after a rough day, when the meeting didn’t go the way you wanted, when you didn’t get the contract, when the kids were driving you up the wall, turn to something that is going to make it a little better? It may not be a vice ‘ it might be reality shows, or hours on Facebook. One of my mom friends told me about her ‘sneaky habit’: after her three kids are in bed, she unleashes herself upon the kitchen, devouring whatever sweet treats are in sight.

Is it a bad habit? Not necessarily. We all need rewards to get us through, and as a mum of two little ones, I can attest to the fact my friend deserves whatever cupcake crosses her path.

My go-to habit, on a typically bad day, would definitely have been a glass of wine or a large bowl of chocolate-covered anything: almonds, raisins… thumbtacks. The sugar ‘ from the wine or chocolate – would perk me up and soothe me. But I’m trying to put other things into place.

As I try to change habits ‘ the big ones, like no alcohol, sugar or wheat, committing to more yoga, and the little ones like drinking lemon water each morning, green tea in the afternoon, and trying to get my handle on 7 hours sleep a night, a few things have become glaringly obvious: habits are hard to make, harder to break, and are about routine, routine, routine.

But isn’t life more fun when we break out of our routine? It is a tad exhausting trying to be good all the time.

As hard as I am trying, I’m going to have to work harder. Last week, I had a day where I must have had four bushels of fruit, so the sugar habit is clearly a lot harder to kick. That’s going to take longer than 66 days. And when I started this journey, I wanted to try and get 7 hours of sleep a night, and embrace stillness ‘ a quiet half-hour in the morning before the kids wake up just for me. This morning I was racing around, half-dressed, making lunches and smoothies and yelling at my kids to get ready for school. Not the Zen moment I wanted to start the day.

Many people have asked me why 66 and not 21 days ‘ everyone seems to have heard it takes 21 days to form a habit. This is a myth that came from the 1960s, when psychologist Maxwell Maltz studied how people with artificial limbs adopted to their new set of circumstances after 21 days. Researchers still aren’t sure how his anecdotal evidence became engrained in pop culture psyche, but it did.

It was only when researchers at University College in London actually tested subjects about how automated behaviour leads to habit formation that the 66 days theory came about. People who wanted to change diet or fitness habits ‘ and those who were successful, took on average 66 days for the habit to stick. You have to do it for the long haul.
So, if you started to go to the gym at the beginning of January, or you’ve given up smoking, or you’re trying to eat healthier and you’re waving in your resolve please take heart ‘ you aren’t alone in your struggle. We’re human, and most of us have moments where the motivation fades for what we’re trying to do.

The habits of successful people have been studied ad nauseum and the same principles apply: successful people ‘ whether they are CEOs or athletes ‘ are diligent in their habits.  Most wake up hours before anyone else to get in their workout, meditation, quiet writing time; they love organization and structure; they set goals. Their lives are mired in routine.

‘We are what we repeatedly do,’ says Aristotle. ‘Excellence, then, is therefore not an act, but a habit.’ 

Confession time: The other night I had focaccia. I was at an Italian restaurant with my best friend, and before you could say ‘This body doesn’t eat wheat’, several pieces of warm oregano-dusted, pieces had found themselves dunked in very nice balsamic and olive oil, and then found their way into my mouth.

It tasted delicious.

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Erin Phelan is a fitness trainer and mom of two. She’s a regular contributor to Best Health and will be blogging here every Tuesday and Friday for the next 66 days.