We live a big part of our lives in what is known as the “autopilot” mode, a way of functioning and living in which we act automatically and without conscious intention in our actions. Although this is often the mode that keeps us from living a more mindful life, it exists for a reason! To allow us to be swift, efficient and to save energy and other resources in order to carry out our daily tasks, such as everyday tasks at work or even driving. And this happens because of our brain and its neuroplasticity, which makes it possible for repetitive routines and behaviors to become automatic. In other words, the moment we learn something and repeat that action, our brain (in order to save energy) automatizes that behavior — thus establishing a habit!
However, these repetitive behaviors, routines and habits don’t have to control us! While it can be challenging, since a habit is firmly rooted within our lives (because it is, after all, unconscious and automatic), it is possible to create new habits and master old ones by consciously choosing to change our behavior. Choosing to do what we want, and what is in alignment with our values and who we want to be.
As Carl Jung once said,
“Until you make the unconscious conscious, it will direct your life and you will call it fate. I am not what happened to me, I am what I choose to become. You are what you do, not what you say you’ll do.” …
But, first, what are these things that we like to call…habits?
Can you think of any habits that are part of your daily life? Maybe… scrolling for a while on Instagram or another social network, watching an episode of a Netflix show before going to bed, making your bed every day, going to the grocery store every Wednesday, procrastinating…
These are all examples of what are considered habits (good or bad), and they all define who we are, what we do and what we can achieve in our lives.
And how exactly do you establish a habit?
According to some authors, this process can be divided into 4 steps:
→ Clue: The situation, person or environment that triggers the process of initiating a behavior in our brain. It signals that you can go into the autopilot mode!
→ Craving: Anticipation of the reward that encourages you to take action on the habit. Motivation behind the action.
→ Response: Action/execution of the habit
→ Reward: Satisfies our desire, relieves something. This reward is associated with the release of dopamine in the brain.
For example, let’s think back to the previous example of scrolling through Instagram. According to this cycle, we could explain the development of this habit as follows — clue: getting home and sitting down on the sofa with your phone in your hand; craving: a break from boredom and mental fatigue after a hard workday; response — scrolling; reward — distraction, relief.
But the good news is… if our brain can change to adapt to these behaviors, it can also modify itself through what we do to change, so that we can be consciously engaged and involved in our tasks and activities.
How can we do this?
Based on the reasoning of this same model, if we want to break a habit (because it harms us, because it’s not congruent with our values) then we have to make it:
→ Invisible (reducing exposure to such cues, for example in the previous case not sitting on the sofa straight away when we get home, or putting down our phone as soon as we get home).
→ Unattractive (for example, by thinking about and writing down the negative consequences of the same habit)
→ Difficult (increasing resistance to these same behaviors, for example by uninstalling some apps from your phone).
→ Unsatisfying (make it unrewarding by turning the phone screen to greyscale or asking someone to “ monitor” us).
What if we wanted to establish a healthy habit? Then we’d have to make it obvious, attractive, simple and satisfying!
But before anything else, it’s important to become more aware of what is a good or a bad habit. To do so, we need to ask ourselves a few questions, such as whether or not an action contributes to our long-term mental and physical health and whether it brings us closer to or further from the person we want to be (at home, at work, in our relationship, with our friends…) and the goals we have set for ourselves. In other words, it is essential that, through this whole process, we don’t forget what is truly important to us, because in reality “we are what we repeatedly do…”.