The next time you are in a place of unhappiness or a time when you miss a goal, stop for a moment and review the patterns of the situation. The patterns will give you in depth insight into your systems and habits.
Look for patterns around your behaviors, your thoughts and your reactions. While we tend to think we are free-thinking beings able to completely isolate each decision we make, the reality is that we rely on a series of patterned responses to situations. The more developed the patterns the more likely we will follow the pattern without even realizing it.
Habits are nothing more than conditioned patterns. They drive our lives in so many ways, yet tend to get ignored when we evaluate a bad decision or want to make positive strides in our lives.
When I talk to people about systems and habits they usually resist the idea that so much of our lives occurs through automatic responses. They try to find examples of how this can’t be true.
A common example that I hear is that moment of realization, the gut response, that tells us that something is wrong. Because this comes as a flash of genius or sudden universal awareness, it is assumed to come from a higher power or from a sudden realization.
Dr. Helen Fisher has spent a lot of time evaluating these situations. She explains “While intuition may seem to arise from some mysterious inner source, it’s actually a form of conscious reasoning. It’s rooted in the way our brains collect and store information. As you accumulate knowledge - whether it’s about what books your spouse likes or how to play chess - you begin recognize patterns.”
Here is an article that goes further into Dr. Fisher’s work and explains that “Your inner brain unconsciously organizes these patterns into blocks of information, a process the late social scientist Herbert Simon, PhD, called ‘chunking’.” It elaborates and states that “Over time, your brain chunks and links more and more patterns, then stores these clusters of knowledge in your long-term memory. When you see a tiny detail of a familiar design, you instantly recognize the larger composition - and that’s what we regard as a flash of intuition.”
To me this is fascinating. It is incredible to think that these flashes of intuition are actually a recognition of a pattern that we subconsciously identify. The next question for me, then, is how can I unlock this to help improve and grow?
A while ago I wrote an article about how the Hall Fame NFL quarterback, Steve Young, talks about how to develop the rights abilities on the football field to be successful. In a TV discussion he kept referring to reflexive recall. He said that we have to train and practice until our natural instincts are to perform quickly and automatically in the ways in which we conditioned ourselves during practice.
If you talk to any athlete you will likely hear the emphasis on preparation and training but this also relates to other industries as well. The military has to rely on teams of people to be in sync in order to accomplish complex missions. Musicians, even when they improvise, rely on patterns such as scales and chord progressions. Even tasks as mundane as driving to work require us to quickly identify situations that don’t seem quite right or that pose a risk while on the road.
Our lives are full of these patterns and responses. Our morning routine, the way we approach others in social situation, the way in which we like to vacation, the way we deal with stress, and the way we order food at a restaurant are all patterned. While we may think we independently evaluate each situation, the reality is that much of the evaluation is happening in our subconscious, behind our awareness.
The key to unlocking this is to learn to manipulate the systems and habits in our lives in order to grow and improve. We can start to craft our routines and the way in which we make decisions and rely on reflexive recall to know that once we have habitualized a better way to proceed we will rely on that when similar situations come up in the future. This is incredibly powerful but only comes when we develop the right systems and habits and work hard to solidify the processes in our lives.
This past weekend my wife and I were in Chicago. We decided to take an architectural boat tour of the city. We knew nothing about architecture but figured we would enjoy the boat ride. The tour guide went through various architectural features and very clearly explained why the buildings looked the way they did. It was incredible to learn that certain anomalies were actually designed to point to other buildings or features from the neighborhood.
Once we learned about these architectural elements of buildings, we then could walk around and see other examples. We could see that “this building must of been built using the black box design” or that “this building has a ledge that is the same height as the building next door so that it blends into the landscape better.”
Learning about these things did not change the buildings or the Chicago landscape. But it did allow us to finally understand a little more about the buildings and why they look the way they do.
Systems and habits are the same way. We all use them and they exist whether or not we acknowledge them. The beauty is that once we understand them, we can use them to accomplish our goals. We can identify the ways in which we are creating patterns causing us to struggle. Or we can make systematic adjustments so that the patterns instead lead us towards success!