Breaking and Building Habits

Habit: A recurrent, often unconscious pattern of behavior that is acquired through frequent repetition. — Answers.com

So we’re all creatures of habits.  We get used to doing certain things in certain ways, and allow our minds and bodies to not only be accustomed to the same pattern, but expect and yearn for it.

This is a nature of humanity, and we really can’t change.  However, for those of us aspiring to achieve self-actualization, this is a powerful and potent tool that we must take control over.

We need to take a good advantage of our habit-driven nature, instead of having it work against us. We do this by building positive habits and breaking negative habits.

For example, one of the small habits I’m glad I developed, is to check where my keys are before locking my car.

I have locked my keys in my car more than once, I’m afraid.  One time, it created a very memorable experience, for better or worse.

My wife and I were building a house, on our property 45 minutes away from where we lived.  We owned a pickup truck then and we went out on weekend mornings.  One Sunday morning, I locked the keys inside the truck.
We discovered this as we were finishing up our morning building session and was getting ready to go home.  It was still before noon, and our property was out in the country, miles away from any gas stations or commercial establishments.  We had neighbors, but we didn’t know them then.  We didn’t have cell phones yet.

We were dirty and tired, and our keys were locked inside the truck.  We could see it sitting on the seat.  We were very frustrated and didn’t relish the thought of embarrassing ourselves by walking up to a stranger’s house on a Sunday morning, plus calling for help would mean quite a bit of expense, whether we got help to break the lock and open the door or have the truck towed away to a dealer.

Luckily, one of the windows was open just a crack.  And we had some wires in our building supplies.  So we attempted to fish out the key chain by inserting the wire through the opening in the window.  I think we spent like one hour trying to do this — and in the end, we did succeed!  I remember feeling greatly relieved, and vowed never to lock my keys in the car again.

From then on, I tried various ways to prevent getting locked out my car.  On our truck, we used to tie a spare key with a wire behind the front bumper.  Other times, I carried a spare key in my wallet.

But in the end, I simply developed a habit — of feeling for the key before I locked my car.  It’s an automatic action now — I don’t even have to think about it.  When I am about to lock my car, I feel this urge to feel for my keys.

And I haven’t locked myself out in a long, long time.

My new habit was a conscious effort at first.  But before too long, it became an automated action.  Now I can’t stop myself from doing it, even when I know perfectly well where my keys are.

A lot of the times, we struggle to break bad habits.  Once our systems are wired for it, it takes a lot of effort to a) be aware when you’re doing it, and b) stop doing it.

I find that one of the best ways to break a habit is to replace it with a better one.

One of the current habits I’m trying to break is that of staying up too late, surfing the internet.

I post my blogs at night, but often I go on from there to checking my favorite news sites.  And before I know it, I’m surfing, looking for a piece of content that engages me for a moment — and when I find one, I need another — and I’m staying up too late.  Once I’m hooked, I can’t stop.

And this feeling that I am not in control of my own actions creates a distress.  I am doing something against my values, yet I’m letting it hurt me.

I try to rationalize with it.  Lack of sleep has a multitude of negative effects on my life.  I get up late, and I’m hassled from the start.  I fall asleep on my bus and miss my stops.  I get sleepy while driving, which is unacceptable — one time, my father fell asleep on the wheel and got into a major accident.  I get sleepy while reading to my children, reducing the quality of my time with them.

The list goes on and on.  Yet reason alone cannot control habits, as habits are not driven by reason but by comfort.  Your mind and body are comfortable with it, used to it — including guilt or other adverse effects associated with your habit.  If our brain was a software, then a habit is a script.  Since it’s written into the system, it runs, every time.

With a computer programming, you simply erase the errant code.  But even then, it can break the whole software.  The better alternative, in this case, is to rewrite it.

Every time you get a craving for the negative habits, redirect yourself to a positive action that has better results.  Not only the pride of not giving into a negative habit worth the effort by itself, but you’ll enjoy a greater benefit from the replacement action.

For example, if you have a craving for sweets, buy yourself an abundance of fruits.  Every time you crave the sweet, eat instead a fruit.  And be very generous with it!  Buy your favorite kind, high-quality ones (organic always tastes better!) and as many as your finance allows it.

With my staying up too late, I’m unable to use direct replacement like eating something else — as I need to be sleeping, instead of surfing the internet.  There are things I do need to do with my computer at night, so I can’t quite replace it with a book or listening to music.  I’m still experimenting with my strategy, but I have some ideas, such as:

  1. Before turning on the computer, think about what I’m using it for.  Have a clear idea of the purpose.
  2. Early in the evening, take an inventory of things I must do, and cut down the list to manageable size.
  3. Envision myself in bed, relieved that I didn’t engage in my bad habit and enjoying the rest.
  4. Envision myself waking up in the morning, well-rested and early enough to take things slowly.

For my particular situation, #1 is the most important.  I get distracted and get off track unless I have clear intention of what I need to do and not do.  I have a love/hate relationship with computers and internet because I get so addicted to the indulgence it offers (when I was a kid, I was addicted to Nintendo). I still haven’t built a habit of choosing the better option every time, but so far I have discovered that once I do form the intention, usually executing it is much easier.

Habits are a very powerful mechanism, both in good and bad ways.  Consider bad habits as a deposit from a bank account, whereas good ones are deposits.  And it’s all automatic.  Bad habits can quickly drive you into debt and bankruptcy, whereas good habits build upon itself and can quickly make you a rich, happy and fully-realized person.  We all oscillate somewhere in the middle, but many of us struggle on the negative side, saddled with debt and trying to control it from spiraling out of control.

Using this analogy, it becomes clear why replacing bad habits with good, instead of simply trying to quit or stop, is a better way of going about it.  Once you have positive habits built up, all you need to do is to sit and enjoy its effects — it will not feel labor-intensive at all.  You won’t even notice, you won’t even think about how you’re doing something good for yourself.  You’re setting yourself up to be the best you can be, all the time.  Productive, effective, and proud of how you conduct yourself.  This can be accomplished from simple rewriting of your scripts — replacing bad habits with good ones.

One you get hooked to doing this, you’ll feel so empowered and excited, you’ll start to look for what more habits you can replace with better ones.  The process of shaping your habits becomes a joyful challenge.

Happy hunting.

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