Wednesday, October 20, 2010

How to Control Your Habits

What if a passing neighbor waved at you from the street—and you had no idea why he did that or what you should do? What if you woke up every morning with a blank slate, having to learn how to deal with every simple situation in life all over again? The prospect is horrifying.

But of course the human brain doesn’t work that way. One of its main functions is to hardwire itself to deal with familiar situations. Yes, we can consciously decide to do anything we want, but thank goodness we have ingrained habits, skills and routines that help us function successfully in the world.

Here’s how your brain does it.

Faced with an unfamiliar challenge, at first your brain doesn’t have a network of interconnected brain cells to deal with it. So it has to focus consciously and work hard to figure out what to do.

But all this intense activity stimulates the brain cells involved to grow tiny filaments called dendrites, which eventually interconnect in a circuit. Once the neural pathway is set, the brain no longer needs to work hard in consciousness to get the job done. It just triggers the hard-wiring while paying attention in consciousness to something else. Your ingrained skill, habit or behavior pattern takes care of it comfortably and automatically.

This is what the brain does, and it’s a wonderful system. And because we rely on these patterns extensively, it makes us creatures of habit.

This hard-wiring goes on all the time. Once you start repeating a specific behavior—no matter what it is—the dendrites start growing. If you keep on repeating it, eventually the brain will wire itself to perform the behavior automatically, without conscious effort.

Hopefully, the habits you ingrain are good ones. Hopefully they don’t cause problems for you and the people you care about.

But we know that’s not always the case. The brain doesn’t protect you from yourself. It doesn’t say, “Uh, Chuckie, my man, I’m afraid I can’t program that for you. It’ll get you in trouble, you know.” No, your brain just goes ahead and programs it. You could end up with an addiction. Or you could end up acting like a jerk. And when enough pain accumulates, you’ll wish you could change the behavior pattern.

But the brain has no delete key. Because the wiring in your brain is physical, there’s no quick way to undo it. That’s why old habits are so hard to break.

To “break a habit,” you have to recognize the problem, get committed and start working on hard-wiring a new pattern, one that will make you more successful. This is hard to do, because it takes lots of repetition of the new behavior before it becomes comfortable and automatic. Which means it will take time and will feel awkward for quite a while. Meanwhile, you’ll make mistakes. You’ll get discouraged and want to fall back on your old habits. Unfortunately, that’s what a lot of people do. They try to quit smoking or drinking, and they fall off the wagon. Or they try to relate more effectively with others, and in the pressure of everyday life, they engage the old automatic behaviors.

Major Insight #1 - You can change an ingrained behavior pattern. If you keep trying through all the awkwardness, eventually the new pattern will establish itself and become another hardwired habit. Which means you can engage it automatically, and you can forget about the old way. Years later, if you don't engage it, the old wiring will degrade from disuse. Improving the way we behave is never easy; but it’s possible, and it’s worth it. And as you know, people do it all the time.

Major Insight #2 - You can control which habits you create. Now that you know the brain automatically programs itself to make habits of repeated behaviors, you can catch yourself repeating unwanted behaviors. And stop the behavior before it's too late. And start a new one that will work better for you.

Much is possible when you know what's really going on "up there."

Post by Dennis E. Coates, Ph.D., Copyright 2010. Building Personal Strength .


Peter Lanc said...

Great blog so tell me about creative imagination when there is no previous pathway - i.e. its all new?

2gnoME said...

Great post. It all starts with self-awareness :)