Humans are creatures of habit. The majority of actions we do every day, we do unconsciously.
We learn something and do it over and over again, until we don’t think about it anymore and the whole process happens automatically.
Think of brushing your teeth, for example. I bet you don’t consciously think, “First I pick up my tooth brush. Then I apply the tooth paste.” You get the point. It’s generally a good thing that we don’t have to think about every little thing we do. It would get pretty exhausting and overwhelming. But when it comes to behaviours that we want to change, being a creature of habit becomes a disadvantage.
To change habits, behaviours, or thought patterns, we have to create new so-called neuro-pathways—literal paths of neurons formed within our brains. We can imagine these as paths within nature. We walk the same path through a field every day. The path gets wider, the surface more even. We come to know exactly where a rock blocks the trail so that walking that old path doesn’t need our attention.
Creating a new path, however, takes effort. We check the terrain, watch out for uneven surfaces, and make our way through high grass. We have to do it multiple times before a trail shows up.
Now, think of changing a habit. Instead of rushing to work in the morning, perhaps you want to meditate after you wake up. Maybe you do it for a few days, but then you forget it, or you don’t feel like it, or you just hit the snooze button without even thinking about it.
So, what can we do? How can we create a new habit?
Get clear on your “why”
You need to know why you want to change or create a new habit. How do you benefit from it? What is the outcome? Visualize yourself in the new situation in as much detail as possible.
Drop the should
Observe and choose your self-talk. Instead of saying, “I should go to the gym,” say, “I choose to go to the gym,” or,”I want to go to the gym.” The word should makes us feel contracted and evokes a certain resistance. The phrases, “want to” and “I choose to” give us a sense of empowerment and expansiveness.
Set a realistic and smart goal
One step at a time. Aiming too high will make it much harder for you to achieve your goal. Take the example of starting a daily meditation practice. If you start with 5 or 10 minutes every day, you will be more likely to follow through than if you start with an hour. Writing down a clear goal statement on what, where, when, and how you plan to achieve a goal helps. Write it in present tense. Your subconscious mind cannot distinguish whether something is just a thought, or reality.
Regularity is key
To create new neuro-pathways, it’s better to do a little bit regularly rather than a lot every once in a while. If you want to create a new habit, you have to do it over and over again, until it becomes second nature. To start something new, it helps to do it at the same time, in the same spot, in regular intervals (such as daily or weekly).
Be compassionate with yourself
Allow yourself to make mistakes and keep going after setbacks. You will probably fall back into your old habit from time to time. After all, you’re only human. If you criticise yourself harshly, you only build up resistance and make it harder for yourself. Just get up and try again.
Reward yourself once you follow through. Determine in advance what your goal is, how you’ll know you’ve reached it, and what your reward will be. Create circumstances that make it easy for you to follow through. For example, if you’re trying to make it to the gym more often, have your gym bag packed and ready to go. Then, when you do go, reward yourself with, say, five extra minutes in the Jacuzzi after your workout.
The little things we do every day have a much bigger impact on our lives than the seemingly big things we do once, or every once in a while.
Inspired to make a change? Start with one thing at a time. Which old habit do you want to let go of once and for all? Which new habit do you want to create?