The Power of Habit

For most living creatures, instincts take charge of the necessary ordering that life requires: finding food, finding a mate, sleep cycles, protective behavior. But we humans are different in a fundamental way: our basic survival tool is our conscious mind, and unlike instinctual animals, we can choose to use our basic tool of survival… or not.

Because of this, we can do something pretty amazing: with our conscious minds, we train our own brains to hold the structure of our lives. We do this by creating habits. The habits we practice daily, weekly, monthly… are all maintained through neural pathways that we’ve established in our brain that make it easy and natural for us to follow these routines.

These habits - if they are good ones - help us to build a sense of meaning, purpose and direction. They are what allow us to persevere and reach long term goals. Without habits, we’d need to use our willpower for every single action we take.

The trouble is, we acquire many of our habits by default - from routines that our family valued and practiced or that we learned in school or from influential people in our lives.

This can be wonderful if the people we learned from all had good habits and great values. It can be awful if the habits we learned are awful.

But even in the best of circumstances - a loving family, a supportive community, great opportunities for learning, responsibility and growth - the habits we learned earlier and that come easily to us may not be the best ones for our current and developing lives.

Many schools of psychotherapy have looked at the results of these habits and concluded that when we are unhappy as adults, it’s in some way because of the mistakes or bad behavior of parents or other important adults.

But what’s more important in the present is not so much to find who did what to us; it is to understand what we decide to do in response; what we’ve built into habits.

This is not about blaming ourselves or denying any awful experiences. Children are obviously not responsible for anything other people may have done to them - and children tend to blame themselves, particularly when what happened was truly horrible. So I want to be crystal clear here that I’m not suggesting that harmful events don’t matter; I’m talking about what we can do now, as adults, long after any harmful events happened.

Changing Habits Relieves Pain

But here’s where the leverage is: what we decided to do, even as small children, when our decisions were nothing like an adult’s conscious choice, is what forms the basis for many of our deepest habits. These habits maintain the meaning we made of such circumstances back then; and it’s through recognizing and changing these habits that we can more easily get relief from the painful parts of our history.

We can’t change what actually happened in the past. But we can change the habits we made in response to those events. Our habits today are often echoes of our past; reverberations of what we experienced and decided way back then.

To start, it helps to look at our beliefs, because they often reflect decisions we made when we were younger, and they are what we formed our enduring habits around.

If we believe that money is the root of all evil, we may develop habits that keep us from making very much of it - because logically making money then becomes an act of evil, right? If we believe that marriage is a war, then we may create just that kind of marriage.

If we believe that money is created through creating value, and doing business is about everybody winning, then we may find that making money comes more easily to us. If we believe that a marriage is a team, a deep source of love and joy, then we may be more likely to create a marriage that reflects those positive qualities.

The experiences lead us to form beliefs and make decisions, from which we develop habits that help us to deal with those experiences more automatically over time. Those habits, whether they’re good for us or bad for us today, endure until we decide to change them.

That is what can make harmful experiences so harmful over a lifetime; the tendency to maintain the same habits and behaviors that were adaptive back then but that may hurt us now.

To change our old habits, to update them into ones that work for our life today, we need three things.

  • Some reflection on the beliefs that are holding us back.
  • A plan or goal that we are aiming for.
  • Persistence in implementing that plan.
The beliefs are the meaning - the framework in which our old habits exist. Pick an area of life that you’d like to improve - work, love, health, happiness - and spend some time reflecting on your beliefs about it.

The plan is crucial. Without a plan or a goal, you’ll certainly get somewhere, but whether it’s where you want to go is really up to chance. And the chance isn’t very high.

It is the persistence - the regular action taken toward your goals - that allows you to establish the habits that will guide you to completion. Without persistence, you have to continually re-assert your will against the momentum of your old habits, against your own status quo, every time you take whatever action you sporadically do take.

Framing new, healthier beliefs provides the meaning and motivation to change. Establishing a plan or goal gives us the direction to aim for.

But persistence is what builds the neural pathways in our brain, and the habits that are the expressions of our consciously chosen plans, goals and values. When we have a plan, and we are persistent with that plan, our habits become our allies. They work for us to reach our goals, so that we don’t have to work continually against our habits.

Carpe diem,

Joel

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