Being Proficient in Bad Habits

(My column as it appeared in Upmarket Magazine week of Feb. 5th)

There’s an old axiom of “You can’t teach an old dog new tricks.” It’s also the knee-jerk response from someone whom either doesn’t want to change, or by someone who can’t get another to change. Either way the statement is for the lazy, not for the dogs. (Dogs actually like new challenges.)

Although some will use this phrase as to not engage in trying something new, what they will do is unconsciously learn, adapt, practice, and reinforce bad habits all the while never knowing they ever acquired any. One of the main reasons this goes on unnoticed is they relate time dedicated to a pursuit, to time equals expertise. It doesn’t. Just because you’ve been doing something for years doesn’t mean that you’ve improved. What can also happen is the longer you’ve been doing something you may unwittingly be getting worse. Discomforts you may be feeling from tasks might not be that you no longer like or can’t do something. Rather the underlying problem causing you pain can actually be from a bad habit you don’t realize you ever picked up. I’ll use myself as an example.

I have been running on average 5 miles daily for decades. However I was starting to have injuries far too frequently. I was starting to believe what I hear so many people say –“Well you are getting older” or “You just can’t be doing that stuff forever” and all the others. The problem was, I was starting to think maybe they had a point. I wore only the best shoes. I was disciplined in taking recovery time between days on and off. I guess hanging up the shoes was inevitable. But really, was that it? Stop? Give it up? The answer was no. Here’s what happened next.

When the New York City Marathon was taking place there was a story about barefoot running. I had heard about this technique, however I discounted it. I mean after all, I had been running for decades and have also invested in the finest footwear brands (and most expensive!) available. What became apparent was that I didn’t need to learn anything new. I needed to drop some bad habits I never realized had been acquired.

It all made sense when I watched a video and noticed the technique they were demonstrating was quite similar to how I would run when nursing myself after an injury. Then it clicked. Instead of running the way I previously did that was very similar to the pain-free way, I had not noticed over time I had changed my style to something dramatically different that was now causing me pain. And I had been reinforcing the discipline over and over again for so long it was now what I thought was proper or the correct way. It’s not often we have an epiphany, but here was one that cuts right across so many situations.

Just how many times have we found ourselves wondering why something in business or in life that we once truly loved doing is now causing us distress to the point that we want to “just hang it up” as another cliché goes. Or, are the things causing us trouble some form of a bad habit we never realized we acquired, and that is the true reason for our discomfort?

After going through a little more pain to re-educate myself and modify my running style, I’m not only running more comfortably, I’m re-evaluating and applying the same principle and technique to other parts of my life. Because one thing that’s great about a habit, it’s totally under your control to change it from bad to good.

© 2012 Mark St.Cyr