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How do we break habits?

Watch your thoughts, for they become words.
Watch your words, for they become actions.
Watch your actions, for they become habits.
Watch your habits, for they become character.
Watch your character, for it becomes your destiny.

Our lives are often run by habits and it is through habits and habitual ways of thinking and doing that we shape our life experience and ultimately our destiny, as the saying goes.  Healthy habits shape us in a positive way while the not-so-healthy do the opposite.  

The tweaking, changing, or introduction of one little habit can potentially have a huge impact on our lives.  The little habit of a gratitude practice at the end of the day, for example, is like drip-feeding into a positive life bank account.  And we are glad that we have the little habit of brushing our teeth, for instance.   

I appreciate my habit of most evenings wiping benches and making sure the kitchen is tidy so that when I get up in the morning the kitchen is nice and fresh.  And I appreciate my habit of walking every day.

We know what is good for us, we know what habits to adopt, right?  But changing habits, changing our way of thinking is oh, so hard.

The challenge of keeping up with the habit of practicing mindfulness is one of the ongoing issues that we discuss in all mindfulness sessions. Therefore, it is not personal when we can’t stick to a new habit.  That you are no longer doing your mindfulness practice, or no longer leaving the first hour electronic-free or no longer walking 30 minutes a day, does not mean that you are hopeless nor that you have no willpower.

The art is to hop back up on the horse and then to keep outsmarting the mind.  And the more you know about what and who you are trying to outsmart the better!

A couple of key characteristics of the mind are particularly useful to know.

  • Our systems are designed for habits.  That makes bad habits hard to break and new ones hard to establish.  
  • Our system is designed for repetition.  The used and worn neuropathways tend to run the show; they fire stronger and clearer signals.  This means we often behave before we get a chance to ‘think’ or engage our executive functioning that could help remind us of the change we intended to make.
  • Our systems are designed to preference ‘now pleasure’ and ‘now avoiding’ over long-term consequences.  The pull of the pleasure in the moment or avoidance of something uncomfortable right now has a much stronger pull than long-term goals.

Keeping these characteristics in mind, let’s look at how we might be able to trick the mind into adopting new habits.  Also, know that changing habits entails a process.  There is the task and then there is the process of change.

Start by being clear on the benefits of the changes.  Really connect with how it will feel when you make the changes.  This is enhancing big picture and long-term views.

Break the change into tiny bits. If ten minutes of mindfulness training is too much, then commit to one minute a day. If walking for 30 minutes is too much, then initially commit to just 5 minutes.

If you have on your to-do list a big project and you keep procrastinating about getting started, then list the task as doing 10 minutes on the project.

There are two benefits of breaking things down into small bits. One is you get the feel-good kick by achieving what you set out to do and secondly, we often tend to do a little more once we do get started.

Don’t berate yourself when you don’t get it right the first time.  Changing habits is a bumpy road, an ongoing experience of doing the new habit, not doing it, reflecting, adjusting.  Keep the attitude curious, kind and spacious in this process.

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