Force of Habit

Do you have habits that you want to change?

Happy New Year! Often the New Year is marked by New Year's resolutions, and those resolutions can involve adjusting old habits and creating new ones – out with the old, and in with the new.

A habit can be a powerful force, driving one into automatic, almost involuntary practices as a result of repetition. A habit is a developed, settled behavior pattern, tendency, practice or mental disposition that is often difficult to become free of. Habits can be beneficial or harmful; productive or destructive. Both success and failure at almost any endeavor are largely the results of habit. In 1892 William James said, “All our life, so far as it has definite form, is but a mass of habits – practical, emotional and intellectual – systematically organized for our weal or woe, and bearing us irresistibly toward our destiny, whatever the latter may be.”

Do you know that it takes approximately 21 days to form a new habit? Habits are formed through repetition - repetition that occurs over a 21 day period. This general 21 day rule applies to any new routine, from flossing your teeth to embarking on a meditation practice. While this 21 day rule may vary in time, it helps to know that habits are formed over a relatively short period of time which requires effort, and after that, the new routine becomes effortless and automatic. With my hypnotherapy clients, I often recommend that they listen to their customized self-hypnosis audios for 21 consecutive days. This is so they rewire their brains forming new neural networks that are consistent with the person’s goals and desires. In the last century, neuroscientists have discovered that the brain itself is neuroplastic, meaning it adapts and reorganizes in response to repeated patterns of activity – to our habits.

Once formed, a habit never goes away. Habits are encoded into the basal ganglia structure of the brain, and once there, they are always there.  However, they can be ignored, replaced or overridden by a new habit while forced into the background. 

Habits can be behaviors and actions, and they can be thought patterns too. An aspect of the hypnotherapy process is that we consider a person’s habit of mind and thought. First the thought occurs, and then the action follows.  The habit of thinking leads to a habit of acting, then that repetition programs the subconscious mind and surfaces as habitual behavior or emotional responses. Because emotions follow thoughts, a person’s habit of thought can derail positive suggestions from a hypnotherapy session and cause them to slip right back into familiar yet undesirable feelings and/or behaviors. It takes diligence and commitment to shine the light on the repetitive thoughts that occupy one's own mind, yet it’s an essential part of becoming empowered enough to create desired changes.  

The brain is wired to create habits and prefers them because they save effort.  In his book The Power of Habit, Charles Duhigg discusses how modern day neurologists have discovered that more than 40% of the actions we perform each day are habits rather than conscious decisions.  Habits emerge because our brains look for ways to conserve effort.  This is a more efficient way for our brain to operate because a habit is automatic and therefore, requires less thought.  Without habits, our brains would go into overwhelm and shut down due to the minutiae of daily life.  Habits allow us to automatically tie our shoe laces, brush our teeth, cross the street safely or drive a car while talking or making other decisions. Think about how overwhelming life would be if we had to relearn how to make coffee each morning, or if each work day was just like the first day at a brand new job! 

Each habit contains structure, a three step loop referred to as “the habit loop.” The habit loop consists of a cue which tells the brain to go into automatic mode and which habit to use. That’s followed by the physical, mental or emotional routine. And lastly there is the reward or benefit received from the routine, which also helps the brain to decide if this particular loop is important enough to remember for the future. The beauty of understanding the structure of the habit loop, is that it provides the ability to tinker with the different components. Once the cue, routine and reward have been identified, the habit can be reshaped. The key is to keep the old cue and maintain the old reward, and insert a new routine. This may call for experimenting with rewards and it definitely requires adhering to a plan.

After enough repetition there is a craving for the reward, and the anticipation of the reward is what drives the cue. Consider how exercise habits are formed: The onset of a new exercise routine can be uncomfortable for many people, beyond just sore muscles. It requires persistence and a lot of mental, emotional and physical effort. Researchers at New Mexico State University studied why people habitually exercised. They found that although people started exercising for a variety of reasons, “...the reason they continued, why it became a habit, was due to the specific reward they started to crave.” 92% of the people studied continued to exercise because they grew to expect and crave the good feeling endorphins and other neurochemicals that result from working out. 67% of people habitually exercised for the self-reward or sense of accomplishment that it gave them. Thus, it is the expectation and craving of the reward that leads to sustained results. 

The brain can’t distinguish between a good habit and a bad habit.  That’s where you come in.  You can take a personal inventory and become mindful enough of your habits to evaluate them and decide which ones stay and which ones need to go.  For example, consistently placing your keys in the exact same spot in your home is a useful habit because it can prevent the frustration, even panic, of lost keys. That habit is a keeper. If the dent in the sofa is getting bigger, then mindlessly gorging on potato chips and beer in front of the TV before bed every night may be a habit up for change!  You can take charge of the habit and learn to create a new routine that forces that habit into the background. If you once enjoyed working out on a regular basis but haven’t done so for a long time, that habit still exists inside the structures of your brain and will support you in resuming the workout practice that you once enjoyed.

You can change a multitude of habits by identifying and focusing on one “keystone” habit that will subsequently set in motion a cascade of positive effects in your life. The Power of Habit gives an example of one woman studied by neurologists. She was an obese smoker with a lot of financial debt, an undesirable job and was overall very unhappy.  One day she decided that in one year she was going to trek through the Egyptian desert.  This one conviction, this one small shift in her perception, touched off a series of changes that ultimately changed her entire life.  She focused on the what, not the how.  Over a 6 month period she replaced smoking with jogging, and that, in turn, changed how she ate, slept, worked, spent money, planned for the future and scheduled her life. At first she focused on changing the one “keystone” habit of not smoking, and the cascade effect was profound.  She ran a marathon, got a new job, lost weight, stopped smoking and was overall pleased with herself and her life.  Neurologists saw that one set of neurological patterns (her old habits) had been overridden by new patterns (her new habits).  They could still see the neural activity of her old behaviors, but those impulses were crowded out by new urges. 

The framework for reshaping a habit is to keep the cue and reward and change the routine, however, the foundation for this framework is your purpose or intention. Heartfelt intention is key because it holds the framework together and drives change. The quality of heartfelt intention should be along the lines of: to live better, to be happy or to feel more peaceful. While we don’t know what the heartfelt intention was for the woman in the above example, it's likely there was a passionate conviction that underpinned the series of positive changes. Your heartfelt intention also serves to derail self-criticisms and self-sabotage. At every crossroad you face, consider your intention. Revisiting your heartfelt intention in that moment provides a means to pull you back into your core, back into the driving force behind it all.

Here are the steps to the process of change through habit formation:

  1. Take a personal inventory of your habits by identifying which habits you want to keep and which ones you want to develop – more specifically, identify the old routine and then decide upon a new routine.
  2. Identify the cue/trigger to the habit.
  3. Identify the reward or benefit of the routine, as well as the craving it elicits. Often access to the subconscious level of awareness via hypnosis is helpful in identifying the underlying rewards, benefits and cravings that drive the behaviors and habits.
  4. Single out the uppermost heartfelt intentionYour intention feeds the goal. Examples of good, positive intentions are: to be happy, to help others feel happy, to experience joy, to feel good in your body, to feel emotionally centered. At every crossroad you face, consider your intention. If your goal or habit becomes yet another way to critique and criticize yourself, then your intention will help you come back into your heart. 
  5. Make your intentions and desires crystal clear by writing them down. People often don’t want to take the time to write them down, yet it’s an important step. Goals should be specific to date, time, location, duration, etc. They should be realistic and do-able. 
  6. Goals should be something that you want to do; invoking desire and enthusiasm.  The positive impulse of desire helps to voluntarily influence your subconscious mind and helps to engage in shutting off the flow of negative impulses.
  7. Commit to the process of change. Procrastination is the opposite of decision, and is a common enemy that practically everyone must conquer. Decide now, commit now. Remember the example of the woman whose conviction to trek through the Egyptian desert and how that sparked tremendous transformation over time.
  8. Allow time – remember the approximate 21 day rule. Be kind to yourself and recognize small accomplishments along the way. When it comes to reshaping habits, slow and steady wins the race.
  9. If all else fails, know that if your conscious goal isn't in alignment with the agenda of your hidden subconscious level of awareness, then no amount of willpower will change a habit and help you stick with a plan. Hypnotherapy is one way to bring all levels of awareness into alignment so that conscious desires and goals are supported by the powerful subconscious.

It initially takes self-understanding, commitment and effort to alter ingrained habits, however there is comfort in knowing that there are natural allies on board: the subconscious mind, the physical structures of the brain and your heartfelt intention. You can voluntarily plant in your subconscious mind any plan, thought or purpose which you desire to convert into physical reality, or you can allow old, outdated habits to drive your life for you. The actual power of habit lies in the fact that they are what you choose them to be. If you believe you can change, and make that belief a habit, then the change becomes real.

“Your beliefs become your thoughts, 
Your thoughts become your words, 
Your words become your actions, 
Your actions become your habits, 
Your habits become your values, 
Your values become your destiny.” 
-Mahatma Gandhi

Warm wishes for a bright and Happy New Year, 
Lisa