I spend a lot of time thinking about habits – the good, the bad, the intentional and the wholly accidental.
In my own life, I have become aware of and am addressing my habits of mind that lead me to anxious thoughts and a propensity to becoming overwhelmed. I have removed some habits (okay, maybe removing is more accurate:) ) and added others (such as my daily meditation practice).
At school, I strive to teach the students the good habits of an academic – preparation, questioning and perseverance. I try to coach them to bring a pencil every day (you have no idea how difficult this is with 8th graders!), complete their homework, ask until they understand and to push harder when the work gets tough.
As a wellness coach, I help my clients establish habits that improve the well-being of their minds and bodies. I assist them in identifying their thinking patterns that underlie their choices and I aid them in becoming more aware of their mindless approach towards health and fitness.
Habits themselves are neither good nor bad. They are simply acquired behaviors that are done often and automatically and can be difficult to break. Habits have a purpose; they serve to automate much of the minutiae of life so that our brains are free to attend to novelty. Habits are difficult to break because they often occur below our level of awareness and they are reinforced by the removal of a negative stimulus (ex. relieving anxiety) or the application of a positive stimulus (the taste of that cookie on your tongue).
I spend a lot of time thinking about habits.
But they still have the capacity to surprise me with their tenacity.
My car is approaching its 14th birthday. I had an after market alarm installed within a week of purchase. This alarm came with two identical keypads that, shockingly enough, do not have the staying power of an Acura. Although the car runs fine (knock on wood), the keypads have now both passed on. I suppose I could track down replacements or have another alarm installed, but the car is 14 years old. I really don’t want to put any money in it that is required by the stoic hamsters under the hood.
So, Brock clipped the wires to the alarm. No problem, I thought. I don’t care about the alarm anymore. But I was forgetting something.
My doors used to lock automatically after a 30 second delay (mechanics hated this – they used to lock themselves out all the time!). After 14 years, I have become used to this feature. When I exit my car in a safe location (basically home and work), I simply walk away and wait for the car to lock itself.
It doesn’t do that anymore. Now, I have to remember to manually enter a key in the lock and turn. I know, so archaic.
How many times have I remembered since the wires were clipped (sounds like an automotive vasectomy, doesn’t it? 🙂 ) on Saturday? None.
I used to tease my mom about her attempts to remember things and break through habits. She had sticky notes plastered to every available surface as visual reminders. She would place throw pillows right in her morning path to prompt her brain to remember while her body adjusted its path. These were never useful strategies for long. As with anything, she adapted to their presence and their novelty no longer registered.
I used to tease her. But I get it now. I don’t think its so much a loss of memory as we age as the accumulation of habits.
Less is novel.
And more is automatic.
We do as we have done.
Biology uses the term “homeostasis” to describe an organism’s attempt to maintain a state of equilibrium or balance. Our habitual state becomes our equilibrium and we are fighting homeostasis to change those patterns of thought or action.
It’s a difficult battle, but not impossible.
The easiest way to change habits is to piggyback them on other changes. For example, if I had a new car, it would be easier for me to remember that my exit strategy had changed. Or, when my life was in flux from divorce, I could easily add a regular yoga class since it was simply one more change of many.
I’m not suggesting you get divorced just so you can do yoga, however!
So what can you do when you don’t have other change to anchor to?
Start by becoming aware of your habits and their precursors.
Example: I buy a Starbucks on the way to work every day when I drive by a specific location.
Identify the pros and cons of the habit.
Example: Starbucks is yummy and coffee has caffeine, but it is expensive.
Change the circumstances or the precursors.
Example: I drive a new route that does not take me by the Starbucks.
Example: The best part of the coffee was the first sip before I walked into work. Instead, I will take a brief mediation in the car to relax.
Identify the challenging situations.
Example: I am most likely to stop when I have not had enough sleep or I am stressed about the day.
Plan alternatives to the habit.
Example: When I am tired, I will bring an extra mug of coffee from home and I will use yoga and meditation to handle the stress.
Create a challenge.
Example: I will commit to an entire Starbucks-free month.
Just so you know, that is a hypothetical “I” in the above exercise. I love me some Starbucks but I’m too cheap to go there too much! I went through much the same process when I decided to add meditation to my daily life a year ago. Since then, I have been able to create a habit of it; I rarely skip more than a day. It has become part of my homeostasis, my balance. We will always revert. It is impossible to not to fall back on habit, to be completely mindful in every moment. Luckily, we can change what we revert back to by changing those habits and creating a new stasis.
And now, I just need to go through the process with locking my car door. In the meantime, please don’t steal my car. I might have to send Tiger after you!