Whether you like it or not, the fact is that habits rule your behavior. From the order in which you brush your teeth to the way you bite your nails when you’re nervous, if you look closely, habits can be found in every part of your life. Therefore, understanding your habits is key to controlling your behavior.
Habits don’t have to be bad. In fact, they’re integral to our ability to function. Habits evolved as a mechanism to allow us to multitask. Imagine if you had to think through every little action. Just eating a meal would become tedious and exhausting.
You’d have to focus on wrapping your fingers around a fork, command right muscles to lift it, hone in on the exact bite you want to target, activate the muscles you need to get the food onto your fork, work through another sequence of muscles to lift the fork to your mouth, tell your mouth to open…you get the picture.
Luckily, neurons are smart enough to find the quickest possible connections. Instead of having to work through every action each time you do something mundane, all you have to do is set an absent-minded intention and your neurons are already firing. This makes taking a bite of delicious food, and pretty much everything else, a whole lot easier.
Unfortunately, however, being absent-minded isn’t always a good thing. When your neuron connections are too strong and you are not aware of how they are firing, you not only miss out on the opportunity to witness and truly enjoy experiences consciously, but you also, inevitably, form bad habits.
The key to overcoming this is two-fold.
First off, you need to wake up and become more mindful in everyday life. Practicing mindfulness will help you see your behavior objectively, and give you the power to change it if you don’t like what you see.
Secondly, you have to understand the nature of habits.
The process of habit formations is really very simple. Habits are formed when there is a specific stimulus, response behavior, and reward.
Take your average smoker as an example. They begin to feel anxious, so they smoke a cigarette, and they are rewarded by the relaxed state the nicotine provides. As soon as the effect wares off, they feel anxious again, reach for another cigarette, and the cycle continues.
But the reward doesn’t have to be obvious, it just has to exist.
If someone wants to eat healthier but really loves the taste of French-fries and ice-cream, just knowing they made a better choice when they chose the grilled vegetable sandwich may, in fact, be reward enough to keep them from reaching for their comfort foods.
Reward mechanisms can vary between individuals. But basically, for a reward to act as an effective deterrent, the good feeling a reward provides has to be strong enough to override the good feelings the bad habit provides.
Looking at it this way, you don’t really have to break a habit. You simply have to train your neurons to fire along a different pathway to replace your old habits with new ones.
Clearly, some habits are easier to change than others. Given the physiological response cigarettes and junk-food can create in certain individuals, those habits can be a lot harder to overcome than changing the order in which you brush your teeth, for example. But if you are armed with an awareness of the way these behaviors come to be, you can train yourself to do pretty much anything habitually.
This article is divided into two parts.
Click here to read the second part that tells you exactly how to change your habits and form new ones.