What is a habit? It’s what you repeatedly do.
All habits are helpful – they serve a purpose.
Your habits are formed as shortcuts (learned behaviours). One habit you probably have is knowing how to pick something up with your fingers. You don’t need to think about each movement involved: opening your fingers, putting them around the object, closing them firmly (or loosely) and then lifting. You automatically know what to do and how to do it.
Without even thinking.
Habits are one of the fantastic ways that your brain has adapted to spend less energy.
Some would say that habits account for about 40% of your day. You run on auto-pilot.
Others will say that your subconscious runs about 95% of your day, so you are only conscious of about 5% of what you do.
Fortunately – or unfortunately – your life is the sum and result of those habits:
- brushing your teeth,
- getting up at the same time,
- what you eat,
- how quickly you eat,
- what you think about,
- how you look at life: your RAS (reticular activating system) filters what you pay attention to or what you choose to ignore, and
- how you waste or invest your time.
How many of these are conscious choices? Or are they just habitual responses?
It’s great when you have good habits. But what about those habits that lead you into temptation?
I don’t see many people complaining about their good habits.
So this post is about overcoming the temptations of giving in to your “bad habits”.
Every habit shapes your identity.
- “I am a writer” – so tell me about your writing habits.
Well, I sit and look at the screen blankly, and then I go to the kitchen and make another coffee while I beat myself up mercilessly for failing to write!
If you’re not writing, you might begin to think of yourself as a procrastinator or a blocked writer.
- “I am a procrastinator” – how do you do procrastinating? What are the triggers and habitual responses of this behaviour? What is the secondary benefit of staying blocked by procrastinating?
- “I am a blocked writer”… how are you doing blocking, and what purpose does it serve for you?
Let’s begin addressing your habits with self-awareness!
How many of your habits are decisions of your conscious mind?
For example, if you know how to drive a car, you learnt how to do this: The sheer effort of learning to drive taught you some habits.
Some of those habits will be good habits – like remembering to use your indicators – and others might be bad habits (driving distracted, rolling through stop signs, tailgating, or driving with one hand).
But you made a conscious choice and decision to learn the habits necessary to become a competent driver.
Many habits were not created by active choice.
You might notice yourself brushing your teeth, but how many days do you make the conscious choice to go and brush your teeth? An adult probably schooled you in brushing your teeth before you even understood habits. Now you do it automatically, without remembering each day, “I must brush my teeth”.
Then there are the habits like eating popcorn while watching a movie. How often have you found that you finished the popcorn and didn’t notice eating it? Your mind and attention were on the film, not on how to eat or how much was left. But you don’t need to focus much on moving your hand from the popcorn bowl to your mouth.
Your conscious mind notices your environment, while your subconscious mind filters out all of the “usual stuff” and runs on autopilot. That’s how you can drive to work without noticing anything along the way unless there was an accident, roadworks, or something particular that caught your attention. You habitually ignore all the rest.
To change a habit, first, you have to notice it!
Most of your “bad habits” are actions or responses well underway before you notice what you’re doing. You’re halfway through the pint of ice cream, or you’ve already exploded in anger.
Regret floods in as you realise what you’ve done.
“The largest part of what we call ‘personality’ is determined by how we’ve opted to defend ourselves against anxiety and sadness.” — Alain de Botton
Emotions, like anger, are messages from the subconscious mind. Many times, this emotional state interferes with your desired outcome. You don’t act as you would like to. You habitually respond in a certain way – like explosive anger – to a particular person or situation.
Most of the time, we catch ourselves in the act or after the fact: not at the moment before giving in to temptation.
What if you acted differently? What new outcomes could you achieve if you didn’t succumb to the temptation to respond driven by habit?
Emotions, like thoughts, are just messages. Could you pause just long enough to notice that you have a choice? How would you prefer to think, feel and act?
Training yourself to notice a habit pattern
The first thing you need to do is to focus your attention on the habit in question.
In particular, you want to get your RAS (that part of your brain that filters out essential things to notice and what to ignore) to start to pay attention to your pattern.
Perhaps you’ve experienced “the frequency illusion” – where your brother gets a new white Land Rover Range Rover, and suddenly you notice it everywhere. There are no more of them on the road today than yesterday. The only difference: you never saw them before!
Or maybe someone pointed out how your boss snorts when they laugh, and now you notice they do it all the time!
So, you want to bring your RAS into the game of noticing: asking your subconscious mind to bring to consciousness all the steps of your habitual pattern. What you are saying to your mind is, “this is important to me, so I want you to notice it“.
It’s a bit like the Facebook algorithm that starts to send you ads after you’ve done a search on the internet for something you were interested in, and now your feed is full of these ads. Because the algorithm has been told “this is important, so show them more”.
Most habits are just survival techniques.
There’s much in the coaching world about trauma responses and survival techniques. It’s particularly true.
The habits you created to survive will no longer serve you when it’s time to thrive. Get out of survival mode. New habits, new life. (Ebonee Davis)
You won’t be able to solve your problems and change your habits with the same thinking that created the problem. Unfortunately, your nervous system (not just your mind and emotions) might feel like they’ve become short-circuited to a particular response pattern.
The good news is that in the same measure that we are learning to identify all the ways that trauma affects the mind, body and soul, we are also discovering how to work with the mind and body to create healthier lifestyles and choices.
Some of these practices are simple to adopt.
On the other hand, therapy may be what you need to deal with past trauma, effectively leaving it behind. Coaching is an excellent tool for staying present and building into the future, but it doesn’t replace therapy.
So, when talking about habits and habitual responses, I am not talking about the deeply engrained trauma responses beyond my scope. I’m talking about the patterns you can identify with self-awareness and move to a new level of building habits to overcome your everyday temptations.
How to master and overcome temptation: habit control
The first step, as I’ve outlined above, is self-awareness. You have to create a space between “stimulus” and “response” that allows you to make a different choice. Until you’ve mastered this art of self-awareness – noticing what throws you off and “triggers” the response, you can’t intervene and act differently.
So your first step and attention should be directed simply at noticing. Changing the focus of your RAS and your perception.
Once you have mastered this noticing, now you can introduce a new response!
This is where your power lies: choosing to do something differently.
Willpower will not get you through if you fail to notice how you habitually respond! No amount of brow-beating and inner criticism will create change if you don’t slow down and create space for it.
From experience, don’t try to fix all your bad habits at once. Focus on one at a time. Your RAS and body will thank you.
Overcoming the fear of change
Letting go of what you know and moving into a new routine is challenging. Any change you make – even replacing bad habits – will upset the apple cart of your life. Even your nervous system and RAS like using the “usual pathways”. This saves energy and effort.
So, not only might you fear change: you will find that you are “hot-wired” to keep repeating the same old patterns.
Control your thoughts: habit control
You might start by focusing your attention, with mindfulness, on your thoughts. Perhaps you choose to “watch your mind” for a couple of minutes.
Just sit and notice the thoughts that come to mind. Don’t try to analyse them: let them pass by.
Another possible exercise would be to focus your thoughts on a particular topic and then notice how easily your mind gets distracted from that topic. What types of ideas regularly interfere?
Another way you might notice your habitual thinking is to consider a particular challenge you have and “think things through” on that challenge. Use rational thinking and analysis to look at it from all angles. Then notice what other thoughts and emotions come up for you when doing this exercise.
Through mindfully watching how your mind works, you can choose to change your habitual way of thinking.
Feelings and emotions: take control of how you process your emotions
If you regularly feel overcome by emotions, make time to sit and feel your emotions. Like the mindfulness of your thoughts, turn your mindfulness to your feelings.
If your challenge is emotional eating, keep a small notebook with you, and before you eat anything, do a quick check-in with your emotional state. Note it down. Use something like an emotion wheel to help you identify your emotions. First, bring self-awareness to your patterns. Then you can interrupt the pattern and choose a different response.
Emotional intelligence is not just being able to read the room and notice other people’s emotions. It is also getting fully in touch with your own and being able to regulate yourself.
Inner mastery: habit control
As you bring more awareness to your habits, you will probably discover that temptation is not the challenge you need to overcome!
The reality is that you are learning to rewrite years of conditioning – that you’ve given yourself – of how to respond.
If you need help interrupting these patterns, you have many options. Coaching is one of them.
But there are also a myriad of apps available, as well as getting a buddy or an accountability partner. You might join a small group that focuses on the same issue and challenge.
Just know that you can change any wiring of how you’ve done things until now.
Neurons that fire together, wire together. Neurons that fire out of sync, unlink.
There is always hope for changing your habits!
Where can I learn more about the RAS?
The purpose of this particular blog post was not to get into the RAS, although I think it’s a significant part of the brain! It’s essential for rewriting habits and focusing your attention! I will no doubt write more about the power of using your RAS for focus and concentration, but in the meantime, you might find some of these articles helpful to learn more.
- RAS (Reticular Activating System)
- Reticular Activating System and Goals | How to Use Your Unconscious Mind to Achieve your Goals
- HOW TO GET WHAT YOU WANT! YOUR RETICULAR ACTIVATION SYSTEM
- The Most Powerful Part of Your Brain That You Are Not Taking Advantage Of: How to Use Your Reticular Activating System to Achieve Your Goals
- The Secret to Leveraging RAS to Accomplish Dreams with Less Effort
- If you want it, you might get it. The Reticular Activating System explained
Unconscious Decision Making:
- Our Unconscious Mind: Unconscious impulses and desires impel what we think and do in ways Freud never dreamed of
The neuroscience of habits:
- The Science of Habit – What does it take to stick with something long-term? You just have to rewire your brain.
- Habits: How They Form And How To Break Them