Caution: Life is Habit-Forming
In this series entitled Lent 2019 we have been discussing self-knowledge. Knowledge that is not used serves no purpose so what should we do with our knowledge? The best answer I know is to use our knowledge of the world and ourselves to form good and positive habits.
The American Journal of Psychology (1903) defines a habit as “A habit, from the standpoint of psychology, is a more or less fixed way of thinking, willing, or feeling acquired through previous repetition of a mental experience.” Yikes! That definition doesn’t leave much room for growth of thought.
Habits are simply those behaviors that we do routinely, often without conscious thought. They are not responses we necessarily were born with but they have by virtue of repetition become automatic responses to repetitive stimuli. Habits can be either good or not helpful. Many people automatically smoke a cigarette after eating a meal. They certainly were not born doing that. An example of a good habit is washing one’s hands after using the restroom or before preparing food or eating.
Writer Charles Duhigg published a book several years ago entitled “The Power of Habit”. In it he explored the science of habits and how marketing specialists use the steps in acquiring a habit to advertise and convince us to make purchases of their products.
While I might not like the above-mentioned definition of a habit in American Journal of Psychology, one cannot deny the psychology of forming habits. Each habit we have begins with what is called the “habit loop”. This is a three-step process and every habit we have developed went through all three steps.
First there is the cue or trigger. Then there is the actual behavior or habit itself. Then there is the reward which is how our brains remember the behavior. Habits are formed in the basal ganglia, that section of our brain that also handles and controls emotions, memories, and – no surprise – pattern recognition. A habit is a pattern we create because of the reward we receive.
Decisions are from a different part of our brains, the prefrontal cortex. Whenever a behavior becomes a habit, we no longer need a decision to make it and the prefrontal cortex decision-making section can take it easy. “In fact, the brain starts working less and less,” says Duhigg. “The brain can almost completely shut down. … And this is a real advantage, because it means you have all of this mental activity you can devote to something else.”
The modern way of describing this is to say you are able to “multitask”. In other words, because frying eggs is a habit, you can talk while cooking; you can open a door or water your garden while dialing your phone. “You can do these complex behaviors without being mentally aware of it at all,” Duhigg writes. “And that’s because of the capacity of our basal ganglia: to take a behavior and turn it into an automatic routine.”
A change of scenery can change that behavior, however. People might park a certain way every day at the office but when they go on vacation, how they park will change because their location and environment is different.
Even what we hear can make a difference in our habits. Sometimes we fail to realize that improving our self-knowledge might be a phrase often heard in real estate – location, location, location. The people with which we associate as well as the environment in which “hang out” does and will have a great impact on our habits.
Conor Neill, an instructor at the University of Navarre in Barcelona, Spain, developed a list of personal habits he felt were necessary for personal success. They included Goal Setting (Dreams to Goals to Actions); Time Management; Fit Mind and Body; Personal Vision (What on Earth am I here for?); ; Integrity – build trust; Personal Finances – getting them in order; Good Social Life; Strong Relationships (with partner, family and kids); Resilience (head in the sky, feet on the ground); Self-Motivation; Self-Acceptance ; Fun; Attracting and Using Mentors and Advisors; Being Open to and Seeking Coaching; Giving with Intention; Inspiring Others – gets others to do stuff; Reflection – setting aside time for reflection.
Some of these are things we have spent time discussing in this blog while growing a better self, a garden of spirit and soul through past Lenten seasons. They are worth noting and discussing again because habits help define who we are. Most of us can remember an adult that was influential throughout our lives and probably one of the characteristics we really remember about this person was a habit of theirs.
The great thing about habits is that when one becomes unsuccessful for us, we can change it. They are not cast in stone. Life is about adapting because no two days are going to be exactly the same. Too often we expect perfection of ourselves and we expect in instantly. Life is a process. When we allow ourselves time to develop and determine what works for us and what should become a habit, then we reap the harvest and reward of a life lived with intention, a life well-lived.