We are Habit Making Machines

Humans are notorious habit machines. The pleasure centres of our brain are hardwired to respond to rewards that we can anticipate. Ironically, rewards we can predict are not as motivating as unpredictable (but anticipated) rewards. Did you know that breaking habits or adopting new ones is a skill? Learning how to break habits effectively should be a meta-skill and something we could benefit from doing more than once a year. Already, we are familiar with common ways to quit habits;  Quitting cold turkey, removing triggers and weening, are just a few examples that we have either tried ourselves or recommended.   The following are three specific things that, if adopted together, can help replace a bad habit and support adopting a new one effectively.

Write it down. A rather obvious point, but identifying what you want in order to set a clear goal is a predictor of how successful you will be at changing your habit/s.  By writing down what you want, you bring clarity and focus to what you are in the process of changing and it makes it more concrete than just any pie in the sky idea we conjure up regularly. Research has shown that making lists can reinforce goal setting and help prioritize values as well as calms a sense of inner chaos. Termed ‘self authorizing‘, the idea that our strengths and abilities are not fixed is a powerful concept if we adopt what researchers call a “growth mindset”. Keeping your long(er) term goals in your sights is an effective way to overcome obstacles.

Make it regular and press repeat. Choosing the same activity or new habit everyday (ideally) and at the same time will reinforce this new habit so that it no longer requires will power or significant effort. The brain learns to adopt and normalize behaviours because the neural pathways in the brain that carry out the signals that command the activity become entrenched. Research points to quite a variation in the time it will take to adopt a new habit. Depending on the individual, it can take from 18-225 days to implement a habit so that it becomes automatic. For example, if smoking a cigarette has felt like the natural thing to do first thing in the morning and if it has been the case for 10 years, you can bet that it will take a serious commitment and time before a new habit replaces the brain’s “natural” tendency to crave the cigarette. And the longer the habit  has existed, the longer it will take to shift. One excellent way to ingrain habit forming/bad habit breaking is to adopt an activity with a spill over factor. Taking the cigarette model as an example, if your brain has been hardwired to expect nicotine in specific doses and times during the day, replacing it with exercise, for example, which promotes the release of different chemicals into the brain, including endorphins, can inadvertently curb the craving for a cigarette. While exercising every time a craving occurs is not tenable, slowly replacing it with doses of exercise can produce a spill over effect; Exercising first thing upon waking, for example,  precludes partying the night before and assuming the endorphins help produce feelings of well being  overall, the ability to resist cravings potentially can be stronger. Arguably, whatever is used to replace the cigarette is a stand in for the addiction and potentially a new addictive behaviour. However, exercise is one of the safest and best ways to adopt a new habit and kill an old one because it may alter eating, social and sleep habits for the better.

Tell someone. Telling someone what you are changing or in the process of creating is a good way to achieve your goal or create changes you are striving for. While there is something of an artistry to quietly working away and cultivating the change(s) you want to see privately, there are some positive reasons to share:  The first is accountability. Using the smoking example once again, when we tell someone we are quitting smoking, we are bringing them into our goal. This serves two purposes:  it binds us to our word, our “follow-through” when others are witness to our intentions and it reaffirms our goals so that each time the topic is raised, we renegotiate our relationship to that goal. This, in turn, creates clarity so that we quickly start to see how invested we are in our claim for change. The second reason to share our goals is the connection that it creates with others.  Not to be confused with competition, which can hinder progress, sharing stories and details can open communication channels, resources and help grow your social circle. Another good reason to share your goal is the motivation that it inspires each time you establish your intention. Of course, this approach can only work if your goal is one which aligns with your desire for change and if you are making serious efforts to achieve the end result.

In need of a little inspiration? Try starting you goal setting with, “I am in the process of…” and list your goal.  It could be, “I am in the process of making healthier eating choices…”.  Another effective way to stimulate change in the brain is by presupposing your long term goal and posing it as a question;  Start your goal setting with, “Why do I effortlessly…” and state your goal in a positive light. Instead of thinking to yourself, “I am lazy” or “I have no will power”, turn it into a positive exploration or suggestion that adopts your goal. For example, “Why do I effortlessly enjoy walking every morning” which can then become, “why do I effortlessly jog every morning?” etc., or “why do I effortlessly make healthy eating choices?” Your subconscious will start to relate to this “new” idea as truth and is more likely to stay motivated as the “newer version of you” navigates through each moment, day, week or month. Unpacking the bigger (sometimes overwhelming) picture into smaller, achievable steps / suggestions will help you feel successful. What you want can already be assumed to be the truth-a new reality.

How does all this relate to Pilates?  Whether you are interested in starting a Pilates class regularly or not, it is important to be aware of the power you have to make choices that positively affect you and those around you. Understanding how your brain works and that habits need time to cement themselves is important so that goals become achievable. Mindfulness applies to movement as well and habits (good and bad) are the products of reinforced, specific, repetitive practices. This is an invitation to explore what habits you are holding onto that no longer serve you. If it results in clarity, and a desire to shift or design a new habit, that is the first step to achieving more psychological freedom and sense of peace and well being.

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