Why You Shouldn't Hide Your Bad Habits

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Things-You-Try-To-Hide_SlideshowIllustrated by Mary Schafrath.
As I’ve been studying habits, and how we make or break habits, I’ve been struck by the fact that we should pay special attention to any habit that we try to hide. The desire to prevent family or co-workers from acting as witnesses — from seeing what’s on the computer screen or knowing how much time or money is spent on a habit — shows that in some way, our actions don’t reflect our values. One way to attack a hidden bad habit — secret smoking, secret shopping, secret monitoring of an ex-sweetheart on Facebook — is to force it out into public view.

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Also, when we pay attention to the things we try to hide, we learn something about ourselves. In Tory Johnson’s remarkable memoir The Shift: How I Finally Lost Weight and Discovered a Happier Life, she writes, “From the day I got my driver’s license, I developed a habit of pigging out at drive-thrus. When I rolled up alone to the window, I would pretend I was ordering for a few people by saying out loud, ‘What was it they wanted?’ As if the clerk at the window cared.”

She was hiding the fact that she was ordering food for one person–and that told her something about herself. Of course, we might hide a habit for many reasons. A reader posted: “I’m a closet writer. Whenever anyone asks me what I’ve been up to, I never tell them that writing a novel is occupying half my time. I somehow feel dishonest, but there’s something about telling people I’m writing that makes me feel overly exposed.”

Sometimes it’s helpful and healthy to keep something hidden — but sometimes, it’s not. In either case, it’s probably useful to notice that we’re trying to hide something, and to know why.

In my framework of habit-formation strategies, this principle is an aspect of the Strategy of Clarity. The more clearly we understand ourselves, our values, and our actions, the better able we become to foster good habits. Ironically, the Strategy of Clarity was very obscure to me; it took me a long time to grasp its importance for habits.

How about you? When you think about what you try to hide, does it reveal anything to you about yourself? Self-knowledge! So important, and so hard.

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Gretchen Rubin, author of two New York Times bestsellers, is our go-to gal for the best get-it-together know-how. Every week, she'll be dishing up her wisdom straight from her popular blog, The Happiness Project, to get you on the road to a more productive, healthier you. Here's to a 2014 resolution that sticks!