I’m writing my next book, Before and After, about how we make and break habits–an issue very relevant to happiness. Each week, I’ll post a before-and-after story submitted by a reader, about how he or she successfully changed a habit. We can all learn from each other. If you’d like to share your story, contact me here. To be notified when the book is available for pre-order, sign up here.
This week’s story comes from someone who wants to stay anonymous.
I used to have chronic pain in my hands. It was originally misdiagnosed as carpel tunnel syndrome but apparently it wasn't, but what it was is something of a mystery. Basically, I had too much tension in my forearms, my shoulders and my neck. My physical therapist told me to do some stretches, and I did, half-heartedly, for a long time, and I saw minor improvement.
But then I heard about the "don't break the chain" tactic. You print out a calendar of the year and begin a new habit. You do it every day, keeping track, and eventually you just won't want to out a slash after all those weeks of happy circles. So, I made myself do my stretches every morning before I ate breakfast. Sometimes in cook breakfast before I do my stretches, but I don't eat until they are done.
Not only do I have no more hand pain, pain that I didn't even notice that I had in my shoulders and neck is gone too! I'm even considering doing a second stretch routine before I go to bed.
In my framework of habit strategies, this don't-break-the-chain approach is part of the Strategy of Starting (which includes the aspect of stopping). Starting is hard, and starting again is harder. So, if there's a habit we don't want to break, we should try never to stop. As William James emphasized in Psychology: Briefer Course:
In the acquisition of a new habit, or the leaving off of an old one, we must take care to launch ourselves with as strong and decided an initiative as possible…Never suffer an exception to occur till the new habit is securely rooted in your life. Each lapse is like the letting fall of a ball of string which one is carefully winding up; a single slip undoes more than a great many turns will wind again.
There's even a site, Chains.cc, that's meant to help people create the unbreakable chains.
Have you ever used this strategy to stick to a good habit?