Do you have any bad habits?

Do you have any bad habits?

Scientists estimate that roughly 40% of the actions people perform each day aren’t actual decisions, but habits. The good news is that habits can be changed if we understand how they work.

Habits are the result of neurological patterns that become “hard wired” in our brain. Once that wiring path is established, we no longer have to engage in thinking about a behavior. It comes naturally to us. Therefore, if we want to change a behavior, we have to do something to “interrupt” the existing circuit.

The circuit, if you will, consists of a couple of static variables. First is the trigger, second is the behavior and third is the reward. My husband often complains that our dog wakes him up in the morning to go outside. There is a trigger, perhaps one of us stirs or daylight breaks through the window. Snickers begins to bump our bed on Ben’s side of the bed as if it was the boat in Jaws and she is a circling shark. And then he goes into the kitchen, opens up the door, lets her outside and feeds her. And that is what we call a double reward. So it has become a habit.

The interesting observation for me in this circuit however, is that if Ben is out of town, I usually have to wake Snickers up. She will be in a deep peaceful sleep much past her usual wake up time. I often have to call her to get her to go outside, and if I don’t put down food (in the garage) she will jump back up the step to go back in the house without even having gone out to go to the bathroom. She has figured out there is no reward in that behavior, and thus ignores the trigger. My boat is safe from dangerous attack. Before you start to think my husband is just a wimpy pushover, I should confess that the kids have me much better trained to provide rewards.

I imagine if we were to look at brain scans of our dog (not something we do with any regularity), we would find a neuropathway (for those with a science background, forgive me if my grasp of this sciency stuff is childlike), that she has a circuit that gets tripped not only by the light coming in or a sound, but it must also have the information available that someone who cares (my husband) is also home and available. So, Ben being home is also a part of the trigger. She may see the same light of day, but the absence of Ben contributes to a fail in providing a strong enough trigger to motivate behavior.

What does this mean in human terms except that we can do it 7 times slower? Well, it means that if you don’t like a particular habit, you’ll need to examine both your triggers and your REWARDS. Habits don’t really go away in the sense that the brain doesn’t “lose or expunge” them, they just become more like abandoned roads. They still exist, but they become the road less traveled so to speak.

Most of us don’t like to give up our rewards. Even ones that stopped making sense to us along the way. Sometimes what started as a reward for one reason has now become a reward in the sense that it gives us a feeling of familiarity or continuity and so we continue to strive for that. So, any attempt to change a habit means to put triggers in place that will still provide a payoff for us. And, the payoff can’t be so far in the future that, its remoteness strips away our will to earn.

 

As is the case with nearly every blog I write, the key to making progress in habit change begins with mindfulness. Habits don’t change when we are rushed, unprepared, and unable to think clearly because we are depleted and or exhausted. Mindfulness means to start first with understanding what you are doing now, why you want to change, creating a plan with accountability and support and THEN implementing behavior.

Have you had any success in changing habits that you would like to share? What helped you?