Just Water, Please: 5 Lessons About Habit Formation

Thursday, September 29, 2011

For the past two weeks, I have been conducting an experiment on myself to answer the question: what would it be like to drink only water for a week? While I did not use the strictest scientific method (never record what happens, no controlled variables, etc.), I set out to discover whether I, as an avid soda drinker, could keep myself to water only.

And the results were quite intriguing - I learned quite a bit about my own hydration needs and the pull of temptation, but most importantly I learned about habit formation. And how hard it is to listen to the experimenter, even when that voice is your own. Learn more after the jump!

1. Would you rather...? When you are trying to form a new habit, it's like playing an endless game of "would you rather...?" involving the same question in different circumstances. Would you rather have a soda with your dinner? Would you rather buy a juice bottle from the supermarket? Whether you are trying to form a new habit or break an old one, these mundane choices get heightened to the point of stressful difficulty. Fortunately, no one expects you to make perfect choices, so remember that whichever side you take, you can choose the other one next time.

2. Gentleness is key. I drank juice on the second day of water-only week (gasp!). I felt like I should bite my tongue or reset the cycle or some other such nonsense, but then I reminded myself that this approach was beyond ridiculous. I had made a choice in the moment and that was the one I would have to live with - no take backs. Rather than beat myself up over it, I decided to be gentle. To recognize that all my choices are not going to be 100% perfect - which is a metaphor for life if there ever was one.

3. Habits fight back! I feel like I should have a big sign or printed t-shirt with this on it: habits are tough little buggers to break! Making a big shift in several days is impossible. However, you do notice many fine details about yourself in the way when sparring with your own habitual behaviors. For me, I found that my beverage choices really depend on the social context and my emotions. I only drink soda when I am stressed/very tired (bad idea, since it leads to a crash later...) or when I am out with friends. Upside? When I buckled to my old habits, I knew where to focus my energies for the next "would you rather...?"

4. Self-deprication get you nowhere. Self-deprication is the flipside of gentleness. When the comment runs through your head that you've failed or you get frustrated because you're fighting a tough habit, reconnect with yourself and realize that this opportunity was just one of many and that your self-worth is not affected by your performance on this one task.

5. Try everything! (and give up anything you don't want to keep) When I got through seven days of drinking only water, I didn't even realize it. When the thought finally crossed my mind, it made me smile. It made me want to undergo more intense personal experiments and see what it would be like. Drinking water most of the time is one that I am going to stick with, but I wouldn't know that I could do it if I hadn't tried. And if you don't like the result of any experiment, go back to your original state - no harm in taking a step towards your own general happiness.

You may also like to read some of my other life lessons.