Every weekday when I wake up, after falling off my bed and trying to master what seems like the eternal struggle of finding a matching pair of the same type of socks… Every weekday, rite before I start being productive, I will go on my computer, or phone, and read the new episode of my favorite web comic Questionable Content (if you’ve never heard of it, it’s a wonderful slice of life comic by Jeph Jacques, you can find it at QuestionableContent.net … and no I’m not… Jeph has no idea i’m linking to him). Now this happens, without me thinking, basically every single day. Even on the days that I am so busy I cant even spare the moment in the morning, the thought of checking the latest edition will pop into my mind throughout the day until I have finally quenched my thirst for the new content.
Now normally I wouldn’t even give this a bit of thought, until one exceptionally busy morning, I found myself waking up a good 20 minutes late. You see I normally set my alarm to go off on my phone, just in case i’m away on business somewhere I will always have a reliable alarm. But this morning, my alarm never went off. It turns out that I had spent so much time on my phone the previous night, that it ran out of battery before my usual wake up call. In a dizzying race to get myself going, I threw my phone on the charger and chose instead of going to my morning coffee shop, I would make some tea as to not have to wait in line. Once I raced to my car and made it out of my drive way I sighed a bit of relief as I was on my way only to find myself a few minutes later paying for my morning coffee. I didn’t even notice what was going on until I went to put my newly purchased coffee in a cup holder that was already occupied by the tea I made earlier!
As I continued my trip to work (not torn between my coffee and my tea), I started thinking about what had just happened and after realizing how my morning habit had in this case cost me valuable time, unnecessary money, and the potential of spilling coffee on my pants (I only had one cup holder). With this revelation I decided to go about my day consciously taking notes every time I noticed myself doing something on autopilot. It turns out, at the end of the day when I looked at my list, there were a Lot of things I habitually do.
Humans are creatures of habit, and for good reason! With the ever increasing busyness of our days our minds would simply be overwhelmed if we had to consciously make decisions for every little thing we do. So to take a bit of the edge off, we developed the ability to create habits, and this ability is hard wired into our brains. When we are working out a problem or trying to have a conversation with a friend we are using a part of our brain called the prefrontal cortex, and it’s the part of our brain that deals largely with decision making. The problem comes while we’re having that conversation, while walking, and maybe chewing bubble gum, the decision making part of our brain ends up getting overwhelmed. It’s the same as trying to rub our bellies while we pat our head, it’s just too much for our mind to deal with at once. So what the brain does is start to automate the things that we do all the time. Things like walking and chewing bubble gum are things we do all the time, and because of that they can get stored as things we habitually do. To take the stress off the prefrontal cortex, where the decisions are being made, habitual and automatic actions get stored in another area of the brain called the basal ganglia, an area known for it’s use in pattern recognition and the development of memories.
The way it works is by storing your daily habits such as brushing your teeth and buying your coffee in the habit part of our brain, it frees up the decision making part of the brain to work on other things, and while this is a really good thing, it also means that some not so good habits can creep their way in. So how do we get rid of these habits that are sabotaging our days?
- Step 1: Identify
Identify the habit that may be taking away from your productivity or happiness, try to be mindfully conscious about how and why you have this habit and why it started.
- Step 2: Find The Trigger
All habits have a trigger that set them in motion, it’s a call and response game with your subconscious mind. So in order to break the habit you first have to find out what causes it to happen. Every morning do you wake up and check out your favorite comic? Every time you walk outside for your break do you grab a cigarette? How about every time you hang out with a certain friend you drink too much?When you find out what the trigger for an unwanted habit is, watch for it, and consciously notice when it happens, this will be a bit tricky at first but keep at it! Everything can be difficult at first but it’s worth it.
- Step 3: Set Up A Reward
Most of the time, a habit will be formed by you getting some sort of reward for completing the action. That $5.00 coffee trip in the morning certainly helps wake me up, plus, the human body really does love sugar. So when breaking a habit, it can sometimes helps to set up a reward for successfully avoiding the unwanted behavior.Now be careful with this, as replacing one bad habit with another bad habit is not what you are going for here.Maybe instead of making your morning trip to spend $5.00 and waist ten minutes in line, you could find a more efficient way to start your morning such as setting an auto timer on a coffee maker so that your coffee is not only a lot less expensive, but also ready for you the moment you get up. Tea is also a great option 🙂
- Step 4: Repeat!
Breaking habits works the same way as getting new ones. It takes time, and consistency, but it’s a great way to practice mindfulness in your every day life. Each day, get up with the intention of modifying that one habit and you’ll be surprised how quickly it becomes automatic. If you notice that you missed it and fell back into the original habit, simply make a mental note and try harder next time (and make sure not to reward yourself.)
Keep at this for a while and Congratulations! you will have successfully broken a bad habit! Now a few notes to go with this post. First off, habits can be pretty hard to break, especially ones that have a physiological or chemical dependency attached to it, such as smoking or drinking. If this start getting rough, find an accountability partner. This can be a friend or an organization that will be there to help you out when your trigger is hounding you and you’re finding it hard not to sink back into your old habits.
Remember also, that not all habits are bad, in fact some are great! The web comic habit I have build up I find to be a good habit. It reminds me and almost forces me to start my day with a little bit of time for myself instead of just diving head first into the pile of work I have waiting for me. Morning rituals such as taking 10 min before heading to work to just sit and have a cup of tea without stress can do wonders for your productivity and happiness throughout the day. Every night before going to bed you can spend ten to fifteen minutes planning your next day can take a ton of stress off your day as well as make you less prone to forgetting important tasks.
What time of habits do you have in your life that are taking up your time, and what new habits could you develop to replace them and really help you crush it all day? let me know in the comments below, and don’t forget to share and subscribe!