“We are creatures of habit.”
I woke up this morning and grabbed my phone out of habit. Out of habit, I didn’t turn off the alarm, but pushed the snooze button instead. I soon realized my mistake and shut it down for good. I got out of bed and went to the bathroom out of habit. Afterwards, I went straight for my fridge out of habit. I grabbed some food and opened my computer out of habit and I checked my mail, facebook, website traffic and subscribers purely out of habit.
Most of our time is spent following old habits, but how much time are we talking about?
Is it 50% per day? Is it 60, 70, or even 90% of our time? The percentage varies from one person to another, but it’s probably higher than you think. Forming habits is simple: the more you do something, the more it becomes a habit. This in itself is harmless and usually helpful.
For example, the first time you tried writing, you had to focus on every single letter. But that became a habit and you could now focus on words, sentences and grammar. Once that became a habit as well, you could now focus on the bigger picture, on the story or essay you were trying to write.
There’s a reason your teacher made you write the letter “a” 600 time (or was that just my teacher?). Either way, practice makes perfect (thanks to our ability to form habits). If not for this ability, our lives would be near impossible. We wouldn’t be able to write, speak, drive, walk or do any tasks which require multiple layers of understanding. Without this ability we would always be stuck at layer 1.
What is a layer?
Let’s say a task requires you to pay attention to 20 things at once; but you can only pay attention to, let’s say, 5. In theory, doing said task should be impossible for you. However, if you focus on just 5 things and turn them into habits, your mind will be free to focus on five more and so on. Each series of 5 things is a layer of understanding, the first one being the most basic and the last being the most advanced. Understanding how to write letters is the first layer in writing, words being the second and so on.
Therefore, the ability to form habits is a vital tool in navigating our daily existence. Unfortunately, habits come in two forms: the highly addictive kinds and the poorly addictive kinds. The poorly addictive kinds are the habits I stated above. These help us navigate the world by making tasks seem easier and more natural. They simply allow us to focus on the deeper layers of the problems we’re facing. Changing or breaking them is easy at best and annoying at worst. We rarely have a reason to do so since they usually work in our benefit.
However, there is a second, much more addictive group of habits. Their addictive nature is caused by the over-sized rewards associated with them.
For example, eating is a habit which is greatly rewarded through our sense of taste. Long after we’ve mastered the art of shoving food into our mouths, we still get rewarded for eating our favorite treats. But this is a problem, since it incentives us to eat food way past our daily needs. People having problems with their weights are usually stuck in a habit they can no longer control.
The difference between highly addictive habits and poorly addictive habits is that highly addictive habits incentivises individuals to perform the action again and again in a manner which is increasingly harder to control. Since even good things done in excess are bad for our well being, this poses serious problems we must overcome.
All addictions are caused in part by our desire to maintain a habit. For example, smokers feel the need to have a stick in their mouths. Parties are often a trigger for drinkers to drink.
While most addictions are maintained for reasons beyond mere habit, the habit itself always plays a role.
Quitting drugs is painful due to the addictive nature of the substances abused; but before you can even think about resisting the urge caused by going into withdrawal, you must first resist the urge to entertain the habit of using them. Overcoming a habit might seem like a joke compared to withdrawal symptoms, but it can be a serious problem for many.
Perfect examples of this are the numerous youtube clips in which teenagers throw a fit because their parents messed with one of their habits. Getting rid of a game looks easy to the outside observer. But for the teenager addicted to that game it is near impossible.
The last game I was ever addicted to made me abandon everything else for two weeks straight. Even after its deletion, it still managed to creep back in. I ended up downloading and removing it more than five times in the span of a couple months before I could finally put it behind me. Thinking back, the urge I felt back then for something so stupid scares me.
Many have abandoned their lives just to entertain some habit. One girl quit the martial arts club I’m part of saying: “I’m sorry. I just can’t get myself to leave my computer. I can’t help it.” But she was wrong. Habits can be broken. I and many others have done it numerous times.
The key to mastering habits lies in understanding how they work.
As I’ve said before, the more you do something, the more your brain registers that activity and the more it becomes a habit. This means you don’t have to give up your habit right here and right now (unless you actually can). Instead, you can choose to go against it for five minute or every once in a while.
Let’s say you are addicted to spending. Every time you leave the house with cash on you, you must spend some or all of it (this actually happened to me a while back). It’s easy for an outsider to say “just stop it then”, but you know it’s not as easy as it seems. You might have tried to give up and failed in the past. Very good.
Habits are formed by repeating activities. By repeating the activity of not spending money (even a little) you’ve made your first steps towards quitting altogether. Do it some more. Next time you go out, try not to spend anything. If that’s impossible right now, then at least walk past the first store.
All habits have triggers. Your shopping addiction is triggered either by a certain store or by the sight of stores in general. When you feel the urge to buy, just look away. Get past that first store and buy at the next one. It will build your strength. Soon, you will be able to get past the second one as well (and so on).
There are many tricks people use to break habits (such as staying in the house for two weeks so that you won’t buy anything or getting your mom to take away your money). Although these tricks are effective, you will not be building the mental strength required to keep yourself from falling into temptation. Since all habits are built through repetition, buying after the buying habit was broken will bring it to the surface just like drinking after the drinking habit was broken makes you want to return to alcohol.
In these (many times unavoidable) moments, you will need your discipline. So while you’re at it, you might want to start building it today (and rid yourself of unwanted habits in the process). Good luck.
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Colisnicencu Daniel is a freelance writer, teacher, karate-ka and entrepreneur. Feel free to pay him a visit at his website www.growuproper.com