“I’m tired of reading and thinking about HABITS,” Pamela Hobart, who describes herself as a philosophical life coach, tweeted recently. “I don’t have habits. I am not a person of habit. Not before, not now, not ever.”
I assume she meant before the pandemic: the coronavirus crisis has seen a massive escalation in the self-help sector’s pre-existing obsession with habits, schedules, rituals and routines, as they’re apparently key to remaining sane in uncertain times. Unlike Hobart, I am a creature of habit. But her tweet made something click: it dawned on me that I’ve never – like, not once – successfully eliminated a bad habit, or inculcated a good one, by consciously trying to do so. Have you? It’s possible you have.
After all, a large body of research suggests it’s doable (even if many of those studies really just show you can change your behavior for a few weeks if researchers are constantly prodding you). But I struggle to think of anything healthy or positive I do regularly that isn’t a) a natural inclination; b) trained into me since childhood, like brushing my teeth; or c) the only reasonable response to my situation at that moment.
I make my son’s breakfast most mornings, but not because I “made it a habit”. I could claim I do it from love, or duty, but really I do it because it’s breakfast time. Which is, of course, the point: self-help’s habit obsession stems from the fact that, as William James put it, “ninety-nine hundredths… of our activity is purely automatic and habitual”. We run on autopilot.
So if you want to change yourself, it seems sensible to change the autopilot settings, instead of relying on willpower every time you want to go for a run, resist a second martini, etc. But just because automaticity runs our lives, it doesn’t follow that we get to manipulate it as we’d like.
There are various ways to state the problem, but they all boil down to the fact that your unconscious patterns – formed over decades, and deeply emotionally charged – can rarely be overridden with a few charts, rewards or tweaks to your environment.
The ancient Stoics were right: we should focus only on what we can control. But we tend to forget that a lot of what we can’t control is inside us. The only way positive habits and routines really do come about, in my experience, is like this: you try every trick in the book, attempting to force change, before giving up in frustration.
Then, once there’s no longer a drill sergeant barking commands inside your mind, you hear the quieter voice suggesting that it might feel good, just for today, to do the right thing. And not to do it “every day at 8am”, or “every day for the rest of your life”, but just today. Then, if you’re lucky, you do it the next day, too. And if you’re really lucky, you suddenly realise, three weeks later, that you’ve been doing it pretty much every day. The habit has stuck. But not through “habit change”. All you did – to borrow a piece of advice with roots in Alcoholics Anonymous, which might benefit us all – was to “do the next right thing.”
Source : Gulf Times