Why don’t we try harder to change our habits?

Fasten your seatbelt sign
Have you ever tried to break or change a habit? Whether it’s quitting smoking, doing more exercise, eating more healthily, writing every day, it’s hard, isn’t it?

I’ve been thinking a lot about behaviour change recently. That’s fundamentally what habits are – they’re ways we behave, and the best (or sometimes worst) habits are ingrained in our daily routines.

Take brushing your teeth. The vast majority of people automatically clean their teeth twice a day – once in the morning and once before they go to bed. OK, you might miss the odd one, but it’s simple to get back on track. Why is that? Well, it’s partly because we’ve grown up doing it – it’s a natural habit. And as we get older and learn a bit more about the world, we understand that cleaning our teeth is an important part of staying healthy (and hopefully avoiding enormous dentist bills!)

Charles Duhigg’s excellent The Power Of Habit is definitely worth a read

Changing your behaviour is slightly different, but not necessarily any easier or more difficult. With my work hat on, I think a lot about how to encourage people to adopt healthier habits that will reduce their risk of cancer. 2 in 5 cases are preventable through a combination of not smoking, eating healthily and not being overweight, moving more, cutting back on alcohol and avoiding the sun unprotected.

Few people would disagree with that sort of list, but those measures rely on you being disciplined and having willpower. Other external forces might be stronger and more prevalent, making your good intentions very hard to keep to. The ideal is that, even if you fall off the proverbial wagon, you can easily get back on (like the teeth brushing example above). Continue reading “Why don’t we try harder to change our habits?”

Do one thing: be kind to yourself

Love self
CC image via flickr: Glenn Euloth

As the annual self-flagellation of a new year rolls around again, many people tie themselves up in knots thinking about ways they can improve their lives.

Lose weight… Stop drinking… Eat more healthily… Do more exercise – come January, come the same good intentions.

But, as we know, most people who try to introduce them fail miserably. The numbers vary, depending on what poll or survey you read, but around 4 in 5 people who make a New Year’s resolution have abandoned it by the end of February. Continue reading “Do one thing: be kind to yourself”

Why a rusty nail sends a chill through me

A rusty nail
CC image via Flickr: Clint Budd

The timeline of events surrounding the former Deputy Chief Whip, Chris Pincher, and the Government’s reaction and shilly-shallying around how much it knew about his exploits, has made for grim reading.

But this isn’t a story about politics and a chance for me to complain about modern leadership.

A particular sentence stood out for me in the above piece from The Guardian. A No.10 source downplayed the seriousness of the allegations against Chris Pincher because it was

on the level of “somebody’s bum being pinched”

You might look at that phrase and shrug your shoulders, but it sent more than a small shiver through me. Let me explain why…

Best days of your life?

Between the age of 7-11, I went to an all-boys prep school in London. We had very little money as a family, but somehow I managed to convince people that I was intelligent enough to be offered a scholarship, which coupled with a bursary meant the annual fees were negligible.

For most of that time, I was a ‘day boy’, in that I travelled to and from my place of education by train.

It’s a measure of how different things were in the 70s/80s that from the age of 7, every day, I caught a train into London – unaccompanied. It never seemed unsafe. Rather it felt remarkably normal, although I doubt I’d ever expect a child in 2022 to do similar.

By the time I reached my final year at the school (1982/3), we were moving house to a place that no longer had a direct rail link to my school.

The school rather generously offered my parents the option of becoming a ‘boarder’ for a year, waiving the additional fees that this usually entailed.

Thus, I entered a life that is now more commonly associated with Harry Potter (without the magic and Dementors, I hasten to add), or – for older readers – Jennings and Darbyshire.

I lived in a large boarding house on London’s South Circular, where we had a tuck shop, dormitories, a croquet lawn (I kid you not!), and I shared the space with roughly 50 other boys and around 5-6 teachers and a matron.

Rules were in place – daily ‘prep’ time (to do homework), regimented mealtimes and lights out, and mandatory daily shoe cleaning (they were checked!).

We had a TV, but viewing was limited (although I do remember seeing Channel 4’s launch night), and the table football became a focus of remarkable competition.

Many of my fellow boarders spent almost the entire school year here. Some boys’ parents lived abroad (I recall Singapore, Abu Dhabi and New York being three of the overseas residences), while at least two were the offspring of Conservative Government ministers (you’re getting the drift now, I imagine).

So to the real point of this post. The ‘Housemaster’ was a single man in his 50s. I’ll call him Nelly (his nickname – I won’t name him outright) and he was also one of the school’s Geography teachers – I recall learning about the business of tea plantations in his lessons. He was overweight and in the habit of wearing rather ugly cardigans (I can still remember one the colour of Colman’s mustard 40 years on).

One of the peculiarities of the boarding house was that it had two sets of stairs. A grand, wood-panelled flight at one end of the building that was only to be used by teachers and the three prefects, and a really pokey flight of stairs in the centre of the building, that took you from the basement level up to the attic rooms.

This second set of stairs was narrow and you had to squeeze past anyone coming in the opposite direction. By and large, they were only used by us boys, but on occasion we’d bump into teachers, particularly Nelly.

He had a habit of roaming the stairs at times when he knew it would be busy and he also had a problem with – to put it politely – his ‘wandering hands’.

I can’t tell you the number of times I walked past him and I’d feel a sharp pain on the inside of my bare leg (we mainly wore shorts at that age), or my bum.

When I turned to work out what had happened, Nelly would be standing there looking innocent, before rubbing the wall of the stairs and uttering the immortal words: ‘Ooh, look at that rusty nail… rusty nail’.

This happened to me (and I imagine most other boys) at least once a week. Did it progress any further than this? I honestly have no idea. I’ve barely ever talked about it and have long lost contact with anyone I boarded with at the time.

The more I think about it now – four decades on – the more distressed I become at the fact that a school employed a man in a position of responsibility, who clearly ‘liked’ young boys.

I also don’t think Nelly’s behaviour was particularly secret. All the boys knew and I’d be hugely surprised if the other teachers who lived in weren’t in some way aware.

But it was a different time – even if anyone had had the wherewithal and awareness that they should make a complaint, this was the late 70s/early 80s. It would have been laughed off, ignored or possibly even punished.

Pinching is not just pinching

And so, back to that comment I highlighted earlier in the Guardian piece from a ‘No.10 source’, in which Chris Pincher’s behaviour was dismissed as ‘just’ somebody’s bum being pinched.

Do you think it’s a small thing that can be casually dismissed? Possibly if it happens to an adult, it could – at the very outside – be brushed aside. But when it happens to young, innocent pre-teen boys. Hmmm.