Our mind is programmed to create habits
There are many systems and habits that drive our lives. We have the ability to use an automatic response, similar to autopilot on a car, to complete the majority of the mundane and repetitive situations in our lives. This allows us to get ready in the morning, drive to work, stay up to date on the news, and much more.
But the systems and habits in our lives go far beyond the usual talk of habits. The reason that I prefer using the word systems is because things are much more complex than most realize when they discuss their habits.
Yes biting our nails or arriving late to work everyday can be classified as habits. But so can the way we shake hands, what we do when we get cut off in traffic, how we respond to adversity, what we order at a restaurant, how we treat our significant other, how we raise our children, how we eat our food etc.
Judgement on Control
That means that we tend to think we have control over each of these areas, yet they are ruled by habit. Jeremy Dean says in Making Habits, Breaking Habits that “when we perform an action repeatedly, its familiarity seems to bleed back into our judgements about the behavior. We end up feeling we have more control over precisely the behaviors that, in reality, we have the least control over.”
This is a very heavy statement. When it comes to the habits in our lives that we have the least control over, we mistakenly believe we have more control over them. We think that we can easily greet someone at the office whatever we feel like at the time. But this isn’t the case. We actually will rely on our patterned response to situations. That is why the same people tend to greet you in the same way every time.
Next time you are at the office try to pay attention to this. Try to keep track of the daily, basic interactions and see if they repeat. What you may notice is that it doesn’t even enter your mind until they respond differently. Then you will immediately say, something must be wrong with so-and-so.
Our mind is a very powerful thing. Dean makes the point in the book that “Our ability to spot patterns at low levels and build them up into a habit, based on our conscious intentions, enables us to reach much more complex goals.”
Our mind is constantly looking for repetition and patterns. Then it can use the same exact behavior next time it thinks the pattern is repeating. This is often done without our conscious effort or even our comprehension that it is occurring.
Dean describes an experiment where students were given a task to press one of four buttons based on where something appeared on a computer screen. They went through the process and were asked if they realized a pattern. While they did not realize there was a pattern, their brain did. The respondents started to respond faster as the study went on because their brain started to learn the pattern.
That is astonishing. The fact that our brain can learn something, change our behavior based on that new knowledge, and do this all without our conscious mind even knowing that it is happening!
Habits are formed without our knowledge
Just as our hearts beat and lungs continue to breath regardless of our conscious thoughts around them, our habits are being formed in the same way. This autopilot not only drives us automatically, it actually learns how to drive without us even knowing!
While some of this may be a little frightening, I think this gives us great hope. It shows us that we don’t have to have control over everything in life. But it also means that understanding the principles of systems and habits is the key to unlocking our true potential. By understanding how to modify our response to situations, we can slowly start to adjust our brains response to patterns.
We can start to change how we greet someone at the office. We can change the way in which we purchase items at the grocery store. We can change the way we drive our cars to be safer and more efficient.
But we won’t improve automatically. That is where our brain falls short. Our minds can automatically program themselves, but only based on our behaviors. If we want to improve we have to consciously change our behaviors. More specifically, we have to consistently change our behaviors in certain situations for long enough to build the habit. If we don’t, our mind will not look for a better way. It will simply keep doing what it knows.
We have to incorporate intention into our habit-building process. We have to map out where we want to go, how we are going to get there, and then put in simple and repeating steps so that we can start to go in the direction we choose.
Then we have to start small. By focusing on small, easy behaviors we can start to build and solidify the habit. It will be much easier to add more to the habit to help us reach our highest aspirations after we solidified the habit.
I challenge everyone to try to adjust one small area of your life. It can be the first step towards a major, long-term goal or it can be something nominal just to experiment with habits. Whatever it is, make sure it is clear when it will repeat and then repeat the behavior over and over again. You will likely find that it seems meaningless initially but over time becomes automatic.
The automatic state is important. This is where you will start to reach goals without as much effort or stress. This is where you can leverage the habits in your life to reach greater, long-term goals and objectives. The automatic is the first step to uncovering the power of systems and habits. This is where you start to be who you want to be!