“We first make our habits, and then our habits make us.” – John Dryden

HABIT: Settled or regular tendency or practise, especially one that is hard to give up.

Learning and living good habits is another cornerstone of successful self-leadership. It also defines who we are. In my view, good habits support healthy thoughts, positive feelings and emotionally intelligent behaviour.

At the beginning of 2020, the world’s 2 153 billionaires had more wealth than the 4,6 billion people who made up 60% of our planet’s population. I would submit that one of the main reasons for their wealth would be that they learned and are living good habits… 

“Successful people are simply those with successful habits.” – Brian Tracy

Release bad habits before replacing them with good ones

I have learned from experience that before we can focus on identifying and learning good habits to live by, we first need to focus on releasing or unlearning our bad habits. The reality, though, is that breaking bad habits takes time, hard work, practice and lots of determination. There is no reason why, if we’ve learned them, we cannot unlearn them. We are in control, remember?

It all starts with motivation, and the first step is to convince ourselves that we need to get rid of a habit that is bad for us, or bad for the people around us. Other people can convince us to a point, but if we are not 100% convinced ourselves, the change will never be sustainable.

As a young man at university and in the army, I used to smoke. Looking back, it seems silly that I even did it. So many people told me that it was a mistake because it was unhealthy, expensive and made me smell. For a long time, all of their arguments fell on deaf ears, until one day I decided that I wanted to stop smoking. However, I could only do it with the right motivation… 

“It always seems impossible until it’s done.” – Nelson Mandela 

To prove that you have the right motivation and are serious enough to part ways with a bad habit, you need to say to yourself: “The last time that I performed the bad habit, was the last time.” If you tell yourself: “The next time will be the last time,” then you are definitely not at a point yet where you have the right motivation to rid yourself of the bad habit.

Everyone speculates about the amount of time it takes to unlearn an old habit or to form a new one, but the reality is that there is no hard and fast rule and no one-size-fits-all time frame. Some habits are easier to form than others, and some people may find it easier to develop certain behaviours. There is no right or wrong timeline. The only timeline that matters is the one that works best for you.

What is important is that we constantly do our own assessment and take into account the feedback from others as to which habit is causing a problem in our lives. Just as my swimming coach advises me to only focus on one aspect of my freestyle correction at a time, it also doesn’t make sense to me to try to focus on more than one habit correction at a time.

Start by addressing your most damaging bad habit first. Identifying and being mindful of our weak habits and managing them, form part of our continuous improvement process. It is not a once-off habit review – we need to constantly review what our bad habits are to actively work on releasing them.

Once we have released the number one priority habit, then we need to do another review to identify the next one that needs to exit our lives. There is no reason why we cannot get rid of all of our obvious bad habits – especially if we use effective tools, including self-talk, visualisation and affirmations. 

“The best way to break a bad habit is to drop it.” –  Leo Aikman 

By focusing on addressing our worst habit, we can, with enough effort, discipline and willpower, conquer it. We need to be cautious, though, of the fact that we cannot stop working on eliminating this habit, even when it has seemingly disappeared. Old habits do indeed die hard. Yes, we can spend less effort on eliminating them from our lives, because we might have broken the proverbial camel’s back, but the seed of the bad habit will always be present in our lives, waiting to be watered again to start growing back. I quit smoking almost 30 years ago and, to this day, when someone lights a cigarette next to me and I smell the nicotine, it awakens something in me that tries to draw me back into the habit. 

“The only proper way to eliminate bad habits is to replace them with good ones.”

Jerome Hines 

When we scrap a bad habit from our lives, we mustn’t replace it with a new bad habit. When I quit smoking, I replaced it with eating more, which is typically what happens. This was not necessarily a bad thing, but it was in my case because I ate everything I came across, including junk food, like chocolates and sweets. Even though I was in the army at the time, I gained 8kg over three months.

If I had only focused on eating and drinking healthy foods, like more fruit, water, nuts and vegetables, then I would not have gained nearly as much weight. Replacing a bad habit with a good habit is a highly effective strategy, but we can’t make the mistake of replacing a bad habit with another bad habit, because then all of the effort and frustration that we have experienced will have been pointless.


Why routine matters

From personal experience, I can tell you that routine helps us to reinforce good habits. It makes us more efficient and provides us with structure to our daily activities, which supports our personal planning process. There are also many more benefits, like saving time, reducing procrastination, getting to complete priority tasks, building and keeping momentum, building self-confidence, and ultimately assisting us in achieving our personal goals. It is, therefore, in our own interests to create a routine that includes all of the important things that we would like to cover in our lives, especially in stressful times. Furthermore, having a good routine forms part of a healthy lifestyle. 

“The secret of your future is hidden in your daily routine.” – Mike Murdock

I have found that what works extremely well in my life is taking all of the important things that I sometimes battle to perform and making them part of my routine, without accepting my own excuses for not including them in a healthy lifestyle. For example, exercising now forms part of my daily routine, and I no longer wonder if I should take the dog for a proper, brisk walk one day, or train in the pool the next. It is part of my routine, and my routine includes all of those important things that I want to do. Moving these types of activities into my daily or weekly routine allows me to do them automatically without making it an issue. Even more critically, it allows me to rather focus my real efforts and energy on all of the activities that I do to achieve my personal goals and, ultimately, my dreams.


Sample habits rather than no habits 

“If you can’t do great things, do small things in a great way.” – Napoleon Hill 

We can never allow ourselves to get too busy to maintain our good habits. Even though we might sometimes get distracted by work pressures or projects, we shouldn’t fall into the trap of stopping good habits. These habits will also carry us through the stressful times when we don’t think that we have time for them…

With or without riding partners, I have a habit of going for an outride on my motorcycle to charge my motorcycle’s battery and my life batteries. At times when I am extremely busy, I don’t just put a good habit like this on hold for several weeks. I know that this would be a mistake. Instead, I only do a 30-minute outride on my own after a quick breakfast at home, rather than a three-hour outride with friends, which includes breakfast with them in Hartbeespoort.

The same principle applies to my swimming routine in the pool. Instead of spending an hour in the pool at the gym, in crunch times, I only spend 30 minutes in the pool, or even just take a short brisk walk through our neighbourhood with Marilé. Not only do I then get some exercise, but I also get to enjoy nature, a good dose of oxygen and vitamin D, and most importantly, I get to spend quality time with my best friend.

The same goes for family time: I cannot totally neglect my family, but I spend shorter stints with them in such busy times, which they know is only temporary. I call these short stints of good habits sample habits, which are much more helpful than not doing them at all. By adopting this approach, I keep the balance in my life, even though for this period, I spend more time on a project, for example, than on anything else. If I don’t practise these sample habits, then I know that I will become more stressed, less productive and even run the risk of completely losing that specific habit, which would be a mistake…

“We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act but a habit.”



Author Dr. Hekkie van der Westhuizen shares practical self-leadership tips, tools and interventions in the form of stepping stones that will assist you along the journey to becoming the best possible version of yourself.


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