Organic Habits: Trim the Trees


The metaphor of organic habits comes from the part of me that is basically "live and let live" in my yard. I am not a gardener. I live in the woods, my front yard is trees (see photo), and I throw a few wildflower seeds out every year and see what comes up. I love the magic and surprise of wilderness.


Leaving wilderness to its own devices, though, does not always mesh with human needs. At our house, we need to prune trees now and then, to keep them from falling on our roof. Trimming our messy lives is just as important. Is a habit or behavior life-threatening? Alcohol, drugs, and other lifestyle choices that impair health are among the trees we need to prune--or totally eliminate--in order to keep the roof intact.


Is a habit keeping you from reaching your long-term goals? You might need to trim some treetops to be able to see the long range vistas. A little less TV, a bit more painting will make you a more productive artist. Fewer video games, more daydreaming might help you envision the plot of your next great novel.


So, how do you weed out bad habits?


  • Reflect on the benefits of this habit and why you continue it. Short-term rewards outweigh long-term benefits in our ancient brains. That's one reason why giving up ice cream or macaroni-and-cheese is so difficult. Knowing that too much fat and sugar are lead to obesity and diabetes just can't overcome the immediate taste satisfaction of our favorite foods. And if you are an emotional eater, you know that you can bury negative emotions in a giant bowl of cheesy goodness--at least temporarily.

  • Remove the triggers for your habit. If you always smoke a cigarette with your coffee after breakfast in the kitchen, try taking your coffee outside to your deck and listen to birdsong and smell the air as you drink it. The more sensory changes you can make, the better.

  • Find a replacement habit that gives similar rewards. I have a bad habit of having a glass of wine (or three) when I come home from a stressful day at work. This week, I have been replacing the wine with a large cup of a relaxing herbal tea. The ritual of making the tea replaces the uncorking ritual, it satisfies whatever actual thirst I have, and it does help with relaxation.

  • Reward yourself for not doing the habit. Your brain loves your old habit. That's why its a habit. Leverage that neuroscience to encourage your behavior change. A tracker like Daylio can help you keep track of how many days in a row you don't do something, and it can keep track of your mood and other activities for the day. From tracking in Daylio, I've realized that I have fewer migraines and feel a lot better on days when I don't drink wine. I'm also on a streak of days without wine, and knowing that is a little boost when I look at the tracker each night. If you want a more physical, visual goal, try putting pennies (or dollars) in a jar for every day you succeed at avoiding your habit. After a set amount of time, spend the money on a positive reward, like a massage or trip.

  • Limit the habit, while still satisfying the craving. Sometimes, you often only need to trim a tree a bit, not totally cut it down. Since we have to eat, there is no "cold turkey" of giving up food. Studies show that the first bite of a food tastes the best, so you really only need to eat a few bites of the ice cream to satisfy your craving for it. Measuring portion sizes helps keep you from scarfing down a huge bowlful just because the first bite was delicious. Similarly, you can limit your screentime, or limit yourself to one bottle of wine a week.

  • Put obstacles in the way of the bad habit. The challenge with limiting, rather than eliminating or replacing a habit, is that the triggers are still there for your old habit. It is easier to fall back into the wine-every-night habit when you remind your brain of wine's comforts on weekends. Making it more difficult to do the negative behavior increases the chances of your meeting your goals. In Atomic Habits, James Clear writes about having his assistant change his social media passwords every Monday and not give them to him until Friday. This allows him to only access social media on the weekends, allowing him to have a more productive workweek. He offers a list of suggestions for "commitment devices" to help make it more difficult, or even impossible, to engage in your bad habit. These include asking to be placed on the banned list at casinos and setting a timer to turn off power to your internet router at bedtime.

  • Set up negative consequences for engaging in the bad habit. Make a bet with a friend that you can give up your habit for a year. Set the stakes high, and you are more likely to accomplish them. For a weight loss goal, you can use a website like healthywage.com

  • Make your goal and results public. Ask someone to watch your behavior, or post your commitment to social media.

  • Envision yourself without the habit. How will your life be improved without this habit? Think of people you admire who have broken a habit like yours. How will you be more like them if you succeed in your goal?

Trimming the trees of bad habits helps you become your best self. You don't have to be a minimalist as you trim the trees. We still love the wilderness. Still, you can remove habits that don't fit your core self, both now and in the future.

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