Habits are recurrent, and often unconscious pattern of behavior that is acquired through frequent repetition. Understand why you act the way you do and everyone seems to notice it but you. A big part of organizational and self leadership is habit formation.
Behavioral psychologist have found that 80% of our lives are routine. We see pointers to this when we watch movies and there are scenes where people are studied for a period of time, and the creepy guy is able to predict whatever the person he is watching will do precisely with an error of just a few minutes. Likewise, if you carefully paid attention to the things you do on a daily basis, you will find that you get up about the same time every day (it may change slightly depending on the previous day’s activity, weather condition outside or what’s to do for the day), and the series of activities that follow after you awake are consistent about 8 out of 10 times.
It has been discovered that as a way of life, we form habits because our brains seeks to automate our lives to make it easier for us to deal with the billions of stimuli we receive on a daily basis. If we had to carefully process all the stimuli we were getting daily, we would probably have our heads implode. But the brain frees up its processing power when it automates certain aspects of our lives.
Take for example the first time you drove; it probably took your full concentration. If your phone rang, you ignored it. If someone was talking to you or playing music in the car while you were driving, it irritated you. But since then you’ve become a pro driver, and even while running late for work you are able to fix your hair, respond to a text message (which you should not do), eat breakfast and drive to work all at the same time. If you don’t believe that, write down specific directions from your house to your office. To do this, you probably had to think for a few seconds. Whereas before driving to work you don’t think about what turns you would take or where the stops are.
Same thing is so even after becoming a pro at driving; think about what it was like when you moved to a new neighborhood, with a new garage transponder and parking orientation. The first few days probably involved careful analysis of how to get in and out of the garage without hitting anything, as well as carefully processing what turns to make to get to your destination via your new route. But after a while it was a no-brainer to do the same activities. Why? Habits have been formed!
The interesting thing about habit formation is that it can be conscious or unconscious. Most times, it is unconscious. Also your brain has no way of distinguishing between what a good habit is and what a bad habit is. So if you consistently act in a certain way after receiving a certain type of stimuli, it becomes a habits after a series of repetition. Whether knowingly or not, it becomes a part of your life and it can either lead you to accomplish your goals and ultimately success, or it can destroy you. This process of receiving stimuli (a cue), taking action, and reward is what is known as the habit loop.
There are many who talk about ‘breaking bad habits’, and this somehow gives the idea that habits can be destroyed, but the fact is that habits really aren’t destroyed from a psychological perspective. When a habit is formed, the brain connects synapses that form new neural pathways. What ‘breaking bad habits’ really refers to is breaking the habit loop by replacing the former action which was a response to a cue with a new action in order to get the reward.
Think about it, you don’t stop knowing how to drive because you took a vacation for two weeks. The driving or drunken or drug habit may be dormant for a very long time, but if exposed repeatedly to the same series of cue that triggered the responses of times past, it will eventually activate the same old habit.
If there is something about your life that you have identified or a loved one has pointed out to you, wherein you feel you are helpless to change, it is probably a bad habit that has been formed. Don’t be discouraged because you can learn a new habit that will provide you the reward you were seeking with the old habit, only difference is that this new habit will actually help improve your life.
In order to break the habit loop of your old destructive, socially awkward or professionally detrimental habits, here are some things that you should do:
1. Identify the cue. The automated process of the habit loop starts with a cue. It’s a trigger that causes you to act in the way you do, almost like one hypnotized. A person who knows you well enough and who pays attention can identify your cues and get you to do certain things in the same manner over and over again. So you can study yourself to know what your cues are.
On an index card or notepad, write the activities, feelings, events and thoughts you had before you took action. It may be a feeling of being disregarded, a stressful day at work, an unexpected bill, boredom, a feeling of neglect. Whatever the feeling is, think about what led to it. Maybe someone said something awful, or you watched an ad or saw a billboard that triggered the feeling. Understand the cue will obviously come through the five senses, so don’t disregard anything that comes to mind as you seek to identify the cue that led to the feeling.
2. Identify the craving you sought to satisfy. The corollary to the first point is to know what the craving was that followed. I have read that from a survey of past alcoholic’s, the goal is not to get drunk as an end in itself. At times, it is that he or she desires to numb how they feel in a situation. The addict is looking for an escape from the harsh reality that he faces. Some people are looking for companionship, and may seek to satisfy this by going to a bar. A smoker may be bored and seeking an escape and a mild stimulation. The person with an outburst of anger may be seeking a sense of authority and control.
Whatever it is, ask yourself what the action you took following the cue contributed to your satisfaction and jot it down. As concisely as you can, describe how you felt all the while when you waited for the craving to be satisfied. Doing this helps you understand what is really going on within you and in a different context you can analyze your actions to help you pick replacement actions that will compensate.
3. Identify the reward. A habit is reinforced because of the reward that comes following the completion of the action. How do you reward yourself when you are done? Do you engage in self talk which justifies your action? Describe what the feeling of satisfaction is. What did you enjoy most about what you did.
Understand that the reward may be temporary before reality sets in, and what comes next may make you feel very bad, but it’s the initial reward that you should pay attention to. As long as you keep getting that reward, even if what follows after is a negative feeling, a positive reward always completes the habit loop. The negative feeling may trigger another cue that will in turn set you up for another, and possibly the same or a different habit loop.
Recognize that this is not as easy as it sounds, and it requires careful consideration and a very deliberate effort. But the reward you’ll receive when you’ve learned to change these habits far outweighs the costs. In my next post, I will talk about how to change these bad habits by replacing them with new actions.
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