This past week, as the coronavirus finally made its appearance in New York City, many of us received a rude awakening to the way our habits might be making us sick. We don’t practice effective hand washing. We touch our faces too much. Not to mention all the other things we touch that are filthy and filled with germs: phones, tablets, remotes, keyboards, door handles, banisters, light switches.
I say often that the key to improving our lives is not in creating habits, but in breaking habits.
Specifically, breaking the habits that hold us back. And any habit that can make us sick will definitely hold us back.
Your health in the foundation for everything you do in this world. Without physical health, you’re unable to make the impact you’re here to make and fulfill your purpose.
To stay healthy we need more than a new hand-washing habit. Effective hand-washing only lasts until the next thing we touch. We also must to break habits like touching our face or picking up our phones.
Where do we begin?
Start With Awareness
I call this the ABC’s of change: Awareness Before Change.
The first piece of awareness is that habits are generally unconscious and automatic — we are often not aware when we are doing them. This is why it’s so hard to break habits: you cannot change a behavior if you’re not aware that you’re doing it. It’s crucial to remember this anytime you want to change behavior.
The second piece of awareness is about the behavior you want to change. If you want to stop touching your face (or your phone) you need to be aware of when you’re doing it and why. What circumstances trigger the behavior?
The more you catch yourself in the act, the more you can begin to see the patterns — both external and internal — that lead to the behavior.
On the topic of why we touch our face, the The New York Times reports that
German researchers analyzed the brain’s electrical activity before and after spontaneous face touching, and their findings suggested that we touch our faces as a way to relieve stress and manage our emotions.
You might see how this can pose a challenge: if you’re stressed out about the coronavirus and touching your face as a way to self-soothe, you’ll only increase your chances of getting sick.
Eliminate the Trigger
Being aware of when you’re touching your face is important. But we can possibly head off this behavior by eliminating the stress trigger.
This is what Stew Shankman), a professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at Northwestern University, advises:
My general advice would be that people should try to reduce their stress over all … Stress impacts your immune system, and the more you’re stressed, the more you’re reducing your body’s ability to fight off infections.
Hmm… sounds like some familiar advice. 😉
What doesn’t work
In case you might be tempted to inflict physical pain like snapping a rubber band on your wrist, or emotional pain, like berating yourself, when you notice you’re touching your face, know that is not an effective strategy for behavior change.
In fact, inflicting pain only adds to your stress, making it more likely to reinforce the behavior you’re trying to change.
What does work
Self-compassion goes a long way when trying to change behavior. Remember that these are habits, and they are unconscious. The fact that you noticed what you were doing — even if you noticed while you were doing it — is a step in the right direction.
Remember that this is a process.
In terms of specific tactics,Professor Shankman advises that),
It is more effective … to try to be in the present moment, practicing meditation and mindfulness exercises and focusing on your breathing.
Ah. Breathing. Another habit that can get us into trouble. The good news is that your body takes care of breathing without the need for your conscious attention. The bad news is that your habitual breathing patterns send messages to your brain about what’s going on, and these messages may be sending your body further into fight-or-flight mode.
Slowing down your breathing — by making your exhales at least as long as your inhales — will bring you back to the present moment, helping to increase your awareness of the circumstances that are triggering your compulsion to engage in behaviors that can leave you vulnerable to catching the virus.
It will also take you out of fight-or-flight mode and strengthen your immune system.
If you want more details on how to break the habits that are making you sick or interfering with your best work, we go deep into this in The Ritual Revolution, my program that helps you create space for your best work by breaking the sabotaging habits that get in your way. The next cohort will begin in a few weeks, so there’s never been a better time to sign up to learn more!