Old habits die hard. It’s a cliché for a reason and it presents a challenge for first responders stuck in a cycle of un-wellness that can lead to lifelong disease or, in the worst case, premature death. First responders have habits just like everyone else, and they affect everything from your weight to your resilience. Unfortunately, some of our habits aren’t exactly productive. Bad dietary, fitness and stress-related habits can make a challenging situation go from bad to worse.
Do I Need New Habits?
First, you must determine what habits in your life you want to change. Take stock of your diet (Do you often grab that convenient fast-food meal on the way home from a shift?), your fitness regimen (How often do you work out?), your stress management (Do you find it difficult to wind down after a tough shift?), your sleep patterns (Be honest, do you get enough sleep?)—the list goes on and on. You also likely have many good habits that positively impact your health and life that you want to hang on to and nurture. Recognize both the good and the bad as you start taking steps to build healthier habits into the challenging lifestyle that comes along with a career in public safety.
Once you have a better assessment of your physical and mental wellbeing, select a couple of positive habits to cultivate. For physical health, this could include getting an annual physical. Seeing your doctor annually is a great preventive measure, helping you to catch problems early on. Physicals also provide valuable baseline information about your blood pressure, cholesterol, weight, vitamin and mineral levels, and more. When you repeat your physical each year, this information can help you and your doctor spot potentially negative changes.
Improving your mental wellness can start with cultivating awareness. Reflect on how you respond in stressful circumstances and ask those closest to you what they notice about how you deal with stress, your attitude, or your response in frustrating and tense situations. Make note of your words and behaviors to help you determine if you’re really as resilient and mentally healthy as you want to be.
The Science of Habits
According to research from the European Journal of Social Psychology, it can take anywhere from 18 to 254 days to program a new habit into your brain. “Changing habits can be challenging,” as habit formation largely takes place on a neurological level, explains Mike Taigman of FirstWatch. “If you do something the same way, a few different times over, it starts to develop a habit. It starts to wire [neurons] together so that it becomes automatic for you.”
In Atomic Habits, James Clear outlines four distinct stages of habits: cue, craving, response and reward. As you take stock of what habits you have, note each stage. Take your alarm clock as an example. The alarm clock ringing is the cue. The craving that you have may be more sleep—you don’t want to get up. That triggers your response, AKA hitting the snooze button. What’s your reward? A few extra minutes of sleep—and maybe being late for your shift.
The science of habits can help guide us as we look to get rid of the habits that hurt us and develop healthy habits to positively influence our lives and wellbeing
If hitting the snooze button is a habit, your mind and body know and recognize the cue, which triggers your craving and leads you to the response and, eventually, to the reward of more sleep. This can work in reverse as well. Say your alarm clock goes off and, instead of hitting the snooze button, your craving is to get up. You respond by getting out of bed, turning your light on and turning your alarm clock off. The reward could be a workout, a shower, breakfast or some quiet time to prepare yourself for the day. Virtually all habits can be broken down in this way, which means we can set ourselves up for success to promote good habits over bad habits in our lives.
Oftentimes, our negative habits cause us grief, regret, even self-loathing—but breaking the habit can be a bigger challenge than we’re prepared for. The key lies in the four stages. To remove a negative habit:
- Hide the cue or change it. Approach the problem from the starting point of your habit. In our earlier example of the alarm clock, you may want to change the sound of your alarm clock.
- Change your craving. You might ask: Why do I want to sleep in when the alarm clock goes off? You may need to go to bed earlier, reduce screen time before bed, or work to make your room darker and quieter to ensure more sound sleep.
- Make your existing habitual response difficult to activate. It’s pretty easy to reach over and press snooze, but what if your alarm clock is all the way across the room?
- Replace the reward with a punishment. “Make it feel like it punishes you if you act on it,” says Taigman. Rather than thinking about the few extra minutes of sleep in your warm, comfortable bed, force yourself to think about how you will have to rush to get ready and you may end up late to work. Depending on the habit, training yourself to consider the short- and long-term ramifications of the bad habit on your life, health, colleagues and loved ones can serve as a powerful motivator for change.
By attacking the habit at every stage, you can help push yourself to make necessary changes that will make you healthier and happier. On the reverse side, how do we create a positive habit? It works in much the same way—by addressing each stage of a habit.
- Make the cue attractive. “Make it as obvious as you can so that you see it all the time in your daily life,” Taigman explains.
- Make it attractive—it should be something you genuinely want to do.
- Make it easy to act on and respond to.
- Make sure it feels satisfying.
Changing habits is a challenge, but it isn’t impossible. The science of habits can help guide us as we look to get rid of those that hurt us and develop healthy habits to positively influence our lives and wellbeing. First responders need good habits just as much, if not more than, the general public. Taking steps to build these habits means you’ll be in tip top shape to serve the public and have a longer, healthier life during your career in public safety—and beyond.
Learn more in the recent Lexipol webinar featuring Mike Taigman, “The Emerging Science of Improved Health & Resilience for Fire & EMS.”