At least the bad ones do– the ones that take up space and crowd out the good ones. When we’re talking about creating better habits, we’re also talking about getting rid of the ones that allow us to resist the habits we really want, without even thinking about it.
Habits are routines that trigger cognitive autopilot, which feels effortless. So the trillion dollar question is:
How do we make the habits we want to have feel effortless,
while the habits we want to break already feel effortless?
This is where we’ll start: the effortless bad habit. Most habits aren’t painful in the moment. That’s why we do them– they serve us in some way. They feel good.
It’s the habits we fail to form but wish we could that tend to cause more pain. Too often, we want to skip to the making part, when we haven’t adequately handled the breaking part. I’ve been at this for about 20 years now, and I’d like to think I’m finally figuring it out. (I’m a slow learner.)
As with most things it’s taken me so long to learn, I find it’s easier and simpler than I had imagined. Which is why this particular hack I use is, ironically, so easy to resist. In all likelihood, you won’t want to do it.
I’m serious. You won’t want to do it, because fighting your habits is not natural.
Habits are Evolution Doing It’s Job
We’re wired to use habits as a matter of survival, but we don’t tend to live in actual survival mode, which is why our habits fail us. They exist to make a very difficult existence more likely to continue– to keep us safe in an unforgiving world.
Our world today, however, is very forgiving of our faults. Most of us are insulated from life-and-death decisions because we can work and have our needs met in exchange for money. We are protected from the elements. We eat whatever we want, whatever time of the year. There are huge systems in place to ensure our survival, and we don’t even need to know how they work.
Now, rather than having to attend to survival needs in the immediate present, our focus shifts toward longer term goals and outcomes. We have the benefit of being able to plan for the future, but our habits don’t really want us to. Our habits work best in the present, keeping us safe from harm. Across time, future-focused thought and effort is a luxury few humans could ever afford, because most humans never made it to that imagined distant future.
Thinking is Expensive
Our brains consume more energy than any other organ in the body. In the same way your computer heats up as it pulls in more electricity to run lots of applications at once, your brain consumes more glucose the more you think. That’s a problem in a world of limited resources. If you’re always just a few days from potential starvation, or a hyena attack, better save those calories!
Habits make complex situations routine, so we get predictable payouts without paying the price of thought. Think about a hard problem once, try some things, see what works, do more of what works and less of what doesn’t. At it’s essence, this is conditioning: learned behavior patterns.
Repetition locks in the pattern and feels good because it’s predictable. Whew! Thinking phase complete, mindless doing phase initiated.
Your Brain Wants a Return on Investment
Once you have some routines established and you get simple, immediate payoffs for doing what you do, your brain is seeking to replicate that pattern again and again forever. It’s trying to recoup your investment in learning so that life gets just a little easier and more predictable.
Imagine if you had to problem-solve what to eat, where to sleep, how to stay warm every single day from scratch. You’d get nowhere, and fail to mitigate threats. You are literally invested in your habits.
This doesn’t mean they’re good for you. It just means you’ve evolved not to break them. We didn’t evolve to resist scrolling through Facebook– we evolved to keep doing it because it feels good. Thinking isn’t part of the equation.
Your Spotlight of Awareness Defaults to “Off”
Regardless if you want to keep scrolling through Facebook when you have more important things to do and your self-loathing is slowly building, your brain is doing what it can to avoid thinking about what you’re actually doing in the context of your priorities, whatever those are.
Your habits wouldn’t know a priority if it showed up with paparazzi and an entourage.
Habits are non-rational processes. You aren’t supposed to think about them.
When you are in survival mode, anything that feels good likely is good for you, statistically. Eating, sleeping, staying warm, feeling secure, having sex. You aren’t supposed to doubt whether your habits are useful. The world will teach you, one way or another, so that the actual pain from being wrong, or the benefits from being right, cause you to change your habits.
In that case, caveman, the more you can offload into the non-rational realm, the better. Unfortunately, that same calculus doesn’t apply today. Countless habits we carelessly cultivate, neither kill us (right away), nor cause us pain (today), so we don’t think about them. They stay just outside our awareness.
And then there we are, alive for one more day and not happy about it. We imagine the future and it’s not looking good. We consider the future we thought today was going to be and it’s not here yet. Oh, to be a hunter-gatherer. Seems a pack of hyenas would be easier to deal with.
How to Buy a Cheap Habit Spotlight
We lock in simple behavior patterns non-rationally. Our brains are sneaky that way. But as the best problem-solvers this planet has ever seen, we like using our rational faculties. We like constructing elaborate plans. Don’t. Avoid the plan.
Make a Habit of Watching Your Habits
Just watch. Note what you do. It works like this:
- Pick a habit you want to break.
- Using a notebook or note app, set up a place to “note” when you feel yourself doing the thing you don’t want to do– the habitual behavior that sneaks up on you.
- Take note, without explaining it. Note when, where, what happened– but keep it very simple and quick. You only need enough to capture what happened.
- Review your notes at least a couple times per week.
This is the essence of being mindful about your behavior. I’m not talking about choices at this point. I’m not even asking you to ask why. Research shows that asking why doesn’t actually help.
Your only job here is to become aware of the moment your non-rational habit routine kicks in. Just one habit. Just watch that one habit. Don’t try to argue with it. Don’t beat yourself up for it. Simply call your attention to it.
Avoid Trying to Change
This might be an odd prescription for advice on changing habits, but avoiding rash action to change is critical in the beginning. Forcing change creates resistance. Until you are fully aware of what’s happening when your habit routine starts, you are likely to apply fixes that don’t work.
Meditation instructors ask us to “note” our breath, “note” our thoughts as they happen, and simply accept what’s going on in our heads. Meditation is not about avoidance, it’s about awareness. Attention to your habits should work the same way.
Attention has a way of turning a blur of a moment into a slow-moving succession of events. It tunes you in to all that happens, creating a space.
Watching Yourself: An Effective Habit of Mind
The most effective people have a highly developed spotlight of self-awareness. They know they are at choice, and they watch themselves.
They watch themselves planning their days, talking with others, choosing how they react to the events of the day… and catching themselves when they aren’t at their best, then self-correcting, usually before anyone else even notices.
By noting what happens in you and in your environment before and during your habitual routine, you wake up your higher mind to things that are usually invisible. Rather than letting it pass you by, or looping on the emotions that keep you stuck in it, creating an artifact of your behavior– the notes you log– lets you examine it rationally, with the time and distance it takes to step out of autopilot, and start to take the controls.
Regardless what changes today or tomorrow, this habit of mind is critical to creating any type of change. It helps you learn how to watch what’s happening, without being held captive by it. You create moments in which you can question the routine and interrupt it.
I use this new habit of noting the behavior I want to change as the first step every single time I want to apply something I’ve learned and change my habits. I also use it when my habits relapse. I use it to begin again. And then again.
Take the pressure off. Simply take note. You’ve dealt with this habit for a long time. It won’t be remade on a whim– evolution made it durable. Know that, so don’t worry about it. You might just be amazed by what starts to happen.