Have you ever tried to shed an old and really annoying habit? Have you ever made a New Year’s resolution that you couldn’t keep? If so, welcome to the human race and welcome to your brain. The more we do something—eat chips while watching TV, ride a bike, play an instrument, study a new language—the more wired our brain is to support that habit.
If I continue my nightly TV-with-chips ritual, that habit will become wired into my brain. It literally changes the structure of my brain. This is a rather sobering thought because, in that sense, you are what you do … so be careful what you do!
The more you do something, the more likely you are to do it in the future. The habit-driven brain doesn’t distinguish between good and problematic behaviors; it just builds repeated behaviors, thoughts, and feelings and becomes wired to just continue with those routines. So what’s a person to do? Are we doomed to live on autopilot, driven by our lower brain and our habits?
While my chips-and-TV behavior affects only me, other habits can cause damage to relationships, both at home and at work. If I repetitively treat my husband with disrespect, that behavior becomes a part of who I am in the relationship. If I repetitively dismiss other team members work at my workplace, it becomes an ongoing part of the way I am wired to act over and over again in different situations, without always noticing the pattern of what I am doing.
We do have a choice: we can mindlessly carry out the same old behaviors over and over again, becoming essentially prisoners of our own habits; or we can step back, use our higher brains, and reflect on our actions. After more than enough nights of chips-in-front-of-the-TV habit, I realized that I was acting on autopilot, and I didn’t like it. So I made a choice, using my higher brain, the part of my brain that allows me to think about what I do.
In my relationship, I work hard not to act mindlessly or to get caught up in habits of reacting carelessly. I don’t have to be a prisoner of my autopilot responses. I have learned to pause, take a breath, and think. I have the power to choose, and the ability to change when I fall into thoughtless autopilot habits.
It turns out that despite being creatures of habit, humans are also creatures of change and adaptation. Our adaptability is the secret to our success as a species. The challenge is to use our already existing adaptability toward positive goals, to make conscious choices about who we want to be in our world.
Here are three tips that you can start using today, to create a lasting change. They are all based on one thing to focus on, to keep you clear and focused toward what you are targeting to change:
1. Change one thing in your environment
Your environment may manipulate your decision-making more than you think. Example: If you want to lose weight, decide on one change: pick a smaller plate so you consume less food. Keep missing gym sessions? Put your gym clothes right at the feet of your bed at night, sneakers and socks included. Do you see where I am going with this? Forget self-control and make your life easier. Manipulate one thing in your environment that will condition you to succeed. Once you change that one thing in your environment, you’ll retrain your brain and create new and healthier habits.
2. Change one bad habit that’s getting in the way. Just one.
Stop thinking like your whole world needs to be changed. Instead, focusing on fixing one thing at a time is the key to lasting change. You should think of change as a project where you spend a month to change something permanently. Give it a month, and move on to the next “project.” You’ll be reaping the benefits of this approach for years to come.
3. Pick one consistent way to reward yourself
You take on a new challenge or project, things seem exciting at first, and then the mundane start to set in. Before boredom strips all the joy away from your work, inject fun into your routine by rewarding yourself with one consistent reward when goals are met. Think right now, how can you reward yourself after a hard day’s work? Or when that quarterly project is finally over? What will you absolutely enjoy at the end of the road or when you reach the top of the mountain? A trip to some exotic place (the long-term reward)? Or a trip down to your favorite frozen yogurt shop (the short-term reward)?
Remember this always: you don’t have complete freedom to create yourself; you do come with genetic gifts and limitations, or temperament. But you have all the choice in the world to become the person that you want to be.