People are always changing. But often, even though we WANT to change something about ourselves, we get stuck.
Why is that? Because of habits. As Samuel Johnson once wrote back in the 1700s, “The chains of habit are too weak to be felt until they are too strong to be broken.”
Think of habits, whether good or bad, as acts of repetition. John Dryden got it right in the 1600s when he wrote, “First, we make our habits, and then our habits make us.” In other words, the brain remembers the action, and if it deems the action safe, it allows a repeat. This is our brain: Wash. Rinse. Repeat.
Habits build gradually, over time. When we do something for the first time, our brain must create a neural pattern to execute it, like wiring. Repeat the action, and the wiring becomes more connected to the other wiring in the brain until it lights up automatically. As Dr. Donald Hebb, discovered back in 1949, “Nerves that fire together, wire together.”
The act of changing that wiring isn’t simply a question of using will power, digging our heels in, or gritting our teeth. Say you’re a smoker, or you drink more than a glass of wine or beer in the evening or you watch more than one hour of TV a day. Has it ever worked to simply say, “I quit!” as adamantly as possible?
But wait. There’s more! Trying and failing at something also triggers another part of your brain, your Experiential Emotional Memory. It logs every failure (and success). Here’s how it thinks: you’ve failed once. Don’t try this again. You might fail again. Wash. Rinse. Repeat.
Ever had that negotiation with yourself? The part of the brain that’s saying, “Hey, wait, I might make it this time,” (your Pre-Frontal Cortex) will only win the battle if you spend a lot of time thinking about possibility. Otherwise, the EEM will win trying to protect you–more specifically, itself, the brain.
So back to digging in your heels and saying, “I quit!” Did it work? Probably not. That’s because it’s only the first step. Remember, knowing isn’t doing; and information isn’t skill. Reading around on the web or texts is a start. But it’s nothing more.
So, what works? Developing the skills required to change the habit, and replacing the habit with a better one. This is where some knowledge helps. But skillful application will still be necessary.
Think of how you use your cell phone. You can’t simply put it to your ear and start talking. You have to take specific steps to get the thing to work for you. And you cannot skip any. None. It’s Wash. Rinse. Repeat.
Same with changing something like eating habits. You need to find out exactly what you should eat. Then what? Go shopping/start eating? No. Are you willing and able to prepare the food? How much do you need? Where can you find it? How often should you buy it? How much should you eat each day? Do you need a 1-week menu? 2-week? 4-week? When should the menu change? And so on.
So, if you’re trying to stop a bad habit, the goal is really replacing a habit. Figure out what needs to happen, and in what order, to achieve success. Then PRACTICE. Wash. Rinse. Repeat.
You CAN do this!