Habits are often misunderstood in general, perhaps because we immediately think about our bad habits rather than the nature of habits in general. Knowing some fundamentals of habits can improve our understanding as well as make it easier to formulate good ones! Consider the following:
Conceptually, habits are ‘thought – behavior’ systems we train ourselves in, making the thought and behavior easier to complete or practice. For example, thinking “I need to clean my teeth” and then actually brushing one’s teeth (practiced regularly) will soon become a habit. Similarly, if we choose to watch TV as a way to relax each night, soon enough we will find ourselves pulled toward the remote and turning the TV on without even thinking about it!
Habits become regular and automatic from repeating the thought and behavior consistently over time. This is true whether we consider the habit as ‘good’ or ‘bad.’ And, good habits are just as easy to train ourselves in as bad ones. The thing to remember here is that the benefit usually comes later/afterward with good habits rather than sooner/instantly as with bad habits.
The human brain is set up or wired to ‘habitualize’ anything we do repeatedly, to increase ease, overall functioning, and free us up for other important pursuits.
Habits take three main things to shift: time, consistent training, and support.
Time: Science and research now show that habits correspond to neural pathways in the brain. The more we have trained ourselves in a habit (the more we have thought and behaved in a certain manner), the deeper the neural groove or imprint will be. Habits require time in order to sufficiently wire or rewire the brain, meaning… Create new neural pathways in ways we desire, such that the thoughts and behaviors are ingrained (habitual). Habits are hard to transform or start at first because we are establishing a new neural network that may be contrary to another one. Popular psychology says we can change our habits in 21 days, but 60 days is much more likely.
Consistent Training: The name of the game here is repetition, repetition, repetition. When we put forth the consistent effort – when we keep showing up/choosing with helpful thoughts and behaviors, even in small ways- the brain will do its job. The brain will make anything we think and do repeatedly easier, requiring less conscious thought, focus, and energy. It is important to note here that perfection is not required, but rather, consistent effort over time. If we stick with it, even when we go off track, it will happen!
Support/Accountability: Don’t change long-ingrained habits alone. Precisely because neural networks have been established, changing habits is hard. Giving ourselves support, encouragement and accountability are true anchors that keep us in the conversation and in the game! Support could look like positive self-talk, some kind of reward or incentive, and practicing patience and grace (as habit transformation takes time). Additionally sturdy accountability systems through friends, professionals, classes/practices, etc, really go a long way. In fact, it is accountability systems external to ourselves that can be a saving grace when we want to give up or give in! Stick with it!
In summary, habits are a structure in our brain and body that takes us to our desired goal or outcome. Through repeatedly choosing helpful thoughts and behaviors over time, with true support, we really can get there! Metaphorically, it is very similar to laying down train tracks towards a desired destination – a lot of work in the initial building of it, but once established, the track is set and we are rolling!
Give yourself the gift of true habit transformation. For more information, consider reading Atomic Habits by Clear, Mind Hacking by Hargrave, or take advantage of the PFC Boost Success Group! You can do it!
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