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3 Jul 2015

The truth about changing habits: six points for outsmarting your mind!

We all at times find ourselves in a situation where there is a need to change a habit – yet we often find it hard to do so.

Before you go ahead changing habits consider your reason for the change. Be careful not to strive to be a kale eating marathon running yogi, it may not be sustainable and it may not be realistic for you either.  Also consider what you are hoping to get out of the change.  We are bombarded with the ‘ideal’ way to be and so easily lose our ‘agency’, our own sense of what works for us.

If you decide to change some your habits then go ahead by planning for with wisdom.  Only change one thing at a time and don’t make changes when you have a lot of pressure going on, it makes it less likely that you will succeed.

A habit is an association or a bunch of associations, it is links between and within experiences.   Freud cornered the phrase ‘simultaneous associations’ around 1885, we have all heard of Pavlov’s dogs salivating over the associations with a bell ringing.

You know it, driving in the driveway and the mind shouts: ‘wine, wine and cheese!’ It is 10.30 and the brain thinks tea and biscuits, it is Friday and the brain thinks: ‘treats!’

When we live largely in habits we function in autopilot. 

When in autopilot mode we stand with one leg in the past and one in the present but without being aware of the present.   In other words our present is coloured very much by our past experiences, the past may even completely dominate the present, so we don’t even notice it!  Our past experience is in effect a fine intricate network of associations.  These associations are links that our brain has created based in what is seen, heard, felt, sensed, thought, tasted and smelt.  Trigger one of these and we trigger a whole story, conscious or unconscious.

Triggered associations colours our perceptions and perceptions bring up associations, a bit of a chicken and egg thing. This means that we tend to see the same over and over again while missing or ignoring ‘stuff’ that does not trigger our associations.  In effect triggering highjacks our attention and almost pulls us towards the associated activity, be it eating, calling someone, reacting in a certain way.  It feels like an urge, an impulse.

Breaking a habit means we have to break an association and sometimes creating a new association can also be part of the change.  There are a couple of ways of doing this.  

  1. Start by being clear on a habit you would like to change.​
  2. Set your intention, making sure it is stated in the positive: ‘I am going to speak kinder to my partner.’ ‘I am going to enjoy one glass of wine.’ (rather than the whole bottle)
  3. Become aware of your triggers like smells, time of day, mood, certain people or occasions.
  4. Change the situation or behavior around the trigger.  This could be not driving down the driveway, not going straight home rather organizing to meet a friend or go for a walk.
  5. The other part is to practice mindfulness of the body as the association or urge is experienced in the body.  Often these urges are experienced as a powerful urge that tends to overshadow everything else, but when given our full attention as a body sensation, they pass quickly, and we experience them as fleeting and momentary.
  6. When you ‘fall in’ by doing your old habit again do not despair, it is natural,your brain is trained to do that, the trick is to notice what happened, what were the permission words that were used?  With food it is often words like: ‘you deserve it’, ‘don’t waste it, so better eat it’, ‘I have been so good’, ‘I will go on a diet on Monday’, ‘I have already had one chocolate so I might as well continue…’  When you are aware of your permission thoughts it is easier to not let them outsmart you next time.

Remember, making changes does not happen overnight, you need to become aware, set a clear intention, plan to do things differently and then be prepared for much tweaking.

This way making changes is about creating healthier associations, it becomes about stepping out of autopilot and into conscious living.​

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