We are what we do, and habits underlie most of our behaviors -- so much so that at least one study shows we tend to mistake the reasons for doing certain things, attributing a cause and effect explanation for our actions.
Simple example: Plenty of people say they drink coffee because they're tired and need a pick-me-up, but often the "cause" turned out to be habit. (Think "I need coffee to get me going" versus "when I wake up, I always have a cup of coffee.")
In business terms, maybe that's checking email first thing because you "want to ensure there are no fires to fight," even though starting your day differently would be much more productive. Or holding an every-Monday meeting to "lay out the week" even though most meetings are a total waste of time.
Or, in my case, drinking six to eight bottles of Diet Mtn Dew every day for the past 40 years.
First things first: I'm not saying caffeine is bad. Research shows a cup of coffee can significantly improve your problem-solving abilities. Other research shows coffee can improve brain functioning and slow aging. As Inc. colleague Geoffrey James writes, a massive study shows that people who drink a lot of coffee tend to live longer than those who don't.
Problem is, I hate coffee.
But not soda, which is a bummer since a 10-year study of over 260,000 people found that people who drank over four cans of soda per day were 30 percent more likely to be depressed than those who didn't drink any soda.
The culprit? Evidently, artificial sweeteners.
But that's not why I decided to drink less soda. I didn't use caffeine as a pick-me-up, although clearly it was.
Drinking soda was a habit. That's what I drank. I woke up, drank soda. Ate a meal, drank soda. Worked out at home, drank a soda. I defaulted to soda out of habit.
And out of necessity, since caffeine withdrawal headaches are screamers. I could manage that situation, though: I just needed to keep plenty of Diet Mtn Dew on hand.
Except when I traveled. That meant either grabbing a few bottles at night for the next morning, or getting up in the morning and sometimes wandering the streets looking for an open convenience store. That was a pain, but not such a pain to spark a change.
Then one day our son said, "I wish you didn't drink so much soda."
And for some reason I thought, "Yeah, I probably shouldn't."
The problem, of course, wasn't kicking the "soda" habit. Soda was just the delivery vehicle. The problem was weaning myself off of three or four decades of extremely high caffeine intake.
I could have limited myself to a certain amount of soda each day; instead of six or eight bottles, maybe five. Or four. But what if I slammed a few early in the day and then was "out" by mid-afternoon? In that case, headache city was my likely destination.
Or what if I decided to mix caffeine-free with caffeinated soda? That would naturally decrease my caffeine intake. Logistically, though, that seemed like a hassle, especially when away from home.
That's the problem with any kind of "diet." Diets are restrictive. Diets force choices that can be difficult to make, especially in certain settings.
Diets require willpower.
Rules, on the other hand, don't require willpower. Since I start every day with a protein bar, I decided I would always drink water for breakfast: that was the rule. To make it easier, I tapped into the power of choice architecture and always kept a bottle of water beside my laptop.
Simple? Absolutely. But here's the thing: I drink because I'm thirsty. I was so accustomed to my level of caffeine intake that I never felt a boost. (I did feel edgy if I drank too much, though.) Water quenched my thirst, so I didn't end up drinking more soda to offset the water I drank.
I still drank the same amount of liquid, but now some of it was water.
And I didn't get a headache.
So far so good.
Within a few days, I decided I should always drink water for lunch, too. Why not? Things were going well.
Plus, I was growing more accustomed to the taste of water. In the past I drank water, but I didn't "like" water. It seemed bland. Tasteless. Meh. But since I had the bottle of water on my desk, I left it there and occasionally reached for it rather than soda. (And I refilled that bottle, rather than getting a new one each time, because it made it easier to keep up with how much water I was drinking, and gave me a little mental boost every time I did. Silly? Sure. But effective.)
And here's the thing: I didn't choose to not drink soda in those moments. That would make it a diet -- in effect, choosing to avoid a negative -- and diets suck. Diets force you to restrict yourself. When I occasionally drank water, that was a positive choice, and positive choices are always easier because they make us feel good about ourselves.
Denying yourself requires willpower. Feeling good about yourself is self-reinforcing.
Again, no diets. Just rules.
In time, I extended the rule to every meal. And since I tend to drink after every mouthful of food -- yet another habit -- that meant my soda intake had dropped dramatically. Which meant my caffeine intake had dropped dramatically.
Which meant I could drink a lot more water between meals, without getting a headache.
And within about a month -- which sounds like a long time, until you compare it with the 40 years I had spent basically only drinking soda -- I was down to less than a bottle of soda a day. Now I average half a bottle or so.
Surely that's good for my health. Even if it wasn't, I no longer have to worry about making sure soda is available. One thing less to think about? I'm always up for that.
Why haven't I gone cold turkey? That was never the point. The point was to drink less soda. The rules I created, and the habits that resulted, made that possible.
Besides: There's a danger in trying to be "perfect" at anything. Perfection requires a level of rigor, focus, and at times self-denial that can be extremely difficult to maintain.
Habits, though, are easy to maintain. Habits don't require perfection. Habits don't require willpower. We just do what we do, often without thinking.
Sometimes that's a good thing; often it's not.
But when you use a rule instead of a diet to change a longstanding behavior, it's a whole lot easier to replace a bad habit with a positive one.
Even a habit that was 40 years in the making.