Reflections on Habits and Change
As human beings, curious and intelligent, we want to explore and experience new things. We want to learn, change, and grow.
Sometimes the change is intentional and empowering, other times it turns into a self-destructive addiction.
Today I want to share with you a few observations, from my own experiences, about habits and change. I’ll also share a couple of resources at the end of this article that helped me in understanding and implementing change. I hope you find the notes below useful.
New habits are extremely fragile, even after 21 or 30 days.
Do something for 21 or 30 days and it will turn to a habit. This is not necessarily true. For me, habits don’t stick after 21 or 30 days. I’ve done things in the past for three months or more and went back to my old pattern.
One small setback in a new routine can drag you down for months—if you’re not prepared for it.
I was very successful at getting up at 6 AM. Then was struck by seasonal allergies and everything went haywire. I simply couldn’t get up early in the mornings for quite some time. The habit needed to be restarted.
Habits change our brain.
Repeating a pattern on a consistent basis changes us neurologically.
This is good news for us when we want to do something positive. Once a pattern of behavior is established, a deeper part of the brain stores it and uses it, almost on automatic, without much conscious thought. A few examples: brushing your teeth, driving, riding a bike, and so on.
Because I established a routine of waking up early for a long time, I can recall it or rebuild the habit. It’s not very hard for me now to get up at 6 or even before, if I need to.
It’s easier to start again if you’ve done something before.
Habits are never eradicated.
Old habits remain intact. They just get pushed to the background. For example, if you were a smoker and quit, the craving remains with you. You just replace the action with something else.
I smoked for 10 years and quit more than 12 years ago. But the moment I hang around smokers in certain situations, I feel the craving. And it would be very easy to light up.
This means that our bad habits remain with us. We need to become more aware of them and replace the activity with a healthier option. In the case of smoking, I steer away from the place altogether, or have a piece of gum.
The flip side is also true. If we stopped a good habit, we can bring it back up again. I did this with meditation. Now it’s back to becoming a daily practice.
So when we stop a supportive behavior, all we need to do is pick it up again, and again, and again. It gets easier every time. The key here is not giving up.
Our brains like small, easy steps … and they add up.
I keep writing about this to remind myself mostly of the importance of starting small. There is an obsessive side to me that wants to do everything at once and do it perfectly. If you ever tried this, it can work, but only if you devote a lot of time (usually double what you expect) and effort to one single goal.
If you have time to spare for one thing then it’s perfectly fine. But if you’re like me and you have committed to other things, a few minutes a day can add up.
You can dedicate 5 minutes to clearing clutter, or doing a few pushups. Your actions compound over time and you’ll achieve the desired result without much resistance.
And when you repeat a behavior enough times, you will start craving it. When you stop, you’ll feel compelled to do it. This is how something like exercise becomes a habit.
We’re always satisfying a craving.
For every habit we develop over time, we feed a craving. Whether it’s a sugar rush, a buzz, a thrill, validation, or anything else.
Every thing we do on a daily basis satisfies a craving. Brushing our teeth gives us a clean, fresh sensation. Movement and exercise release endorphins and we feel good. A drink mellows us out.
The craving is not the problem. It’s how we satisfy it that can be harmful.
If, for example, the craving is to escape, instead of checking Facebook five thousand times, I removed social media apps from view, and in place have a book to flip through when I need a hit of escapism or distraction.
Instead of reaching out for alcohol every time we feel stressed, we can sit still and breathe deeply for a few minutes, or talk to a friend.
Repetition is the mother of excellence and self-destruction.
We are truly creatures of habit. We grow, and we improve through repetition. This is how we learned to walk, talk, and do anything, almost instinctively.
Of course the opposite is true too. We can repeat negative patterns and strip our life of any joy. No one ever picks up a cigarette or a drink intending to be an addict. It’s the repetition that changes our behavior and chemistry.
We repeat the same thoughts, triggering the same emotions and warranting the same response.
Taking notice of the pattern will help in changing the behavior. The moment, for example, somebody pushes your buttons (and it’s usually a loved one or close person) what was it that they did or said, and how did you react to it? Why do you think you react the way you do? Usually there is a thought and an emotion that’s on repeat, i.e. habitual.
Curiosity is a double-edged sword.
We learn and explore because of curiosity. We can’t help but be curious. Sometimes, however, we hide behind curiosity to mask unhelpful behavior (self sabotage, procrastination, escapism … etc.). This turns curiosity into a time and motivation killer.
Think of how many times you check email, Facebook or Twitter to see what others are up to. What benefit are you getting from checking email 20 times vs. 3 times a day?
One of the things you can do to curb useless/fake curiosity is taking time off from the behavior and seeing how it feels to be, for example, without email, or social media for a day.
Most of our behaviors are acquired over time through repetition of tiny actions. This is how we form or change habits … and how we become who we are today.
Any acquired behavior can be changed, and any new behavior can become a habit. The possibility of change is always within your reach, through:
- Awareness of what you want (or don’t want)
- Understanding how change works
- Making tiny changes
- Repeating the required action
- Managing interruptions by picking up, and picking up again
All you need to do is start, right now.
The Power of Habit: If you want to work on any habit, I highly recommend not only reading this book, but working with the guidance provided. The habit loop template is an excellent way to implement change.
Tiny Habits:This program is fun and so easy. You can sign up (for free) and commit to doing three very small things for a week. You will get all the information you need to choose your tiny behaviors and work with the program. I recommend that you do it at least once. You will gain a better understanding of how small changes work and implement a few positive habits.
If you’re interested in reading more about habits, check out these articles from the archives.
- 7 Essential Steps to Get Out of Your Own Way
- 10 Practical Steps to Habit Changing Success
- The Top 3 Reasons We Succeed or Not in Sustaining Change
- The Simple math of Achievement
I wish you the best of success in any changes you want to make.