Most people underestimate the power of habit and routine. Because these are usually subconscious elements of our lives, we don’t notice the extent to which they impact us.
We go through our morning routine getting ready for work or school in much the same way, day after day. We get ready to go to sleep in similar patterns. We drive to the store in roughly the same way.
But it extends even deeper. We turn on our blinker at a similar distance from stoplights and stop signs time after time. We drive certain speeds on certain roads without ever looking at our speedometer.
We greet people in very similar ways every time we meet someone new. We shake hands in the same way. We immediately think certain thoughts about this person based on the context of the meeting and your previous experience with similar people.
When we receive bad news we immediately go through a similar pattern of thought each time. We react to praise in the same way over and over again. We use specific types of words when we are having a difficult conversation with someone.
Years ago I was teaching courses at the local community college. I developed a good relationship with the students in the class and by the end of the course they felt comfortable enough to tease me about some habits that I never even knew existed.
They said that after explaining a particularly complex topic I would make eye contact with everyone and ask, “does that make sense.” I did this to make sure that I wasn’t losing any students and that they were following along but I had no idea just how much I did this and how much they noticed it.
While habit and routine behavior is very interesting, I find it even more fascinating to study the habitual ways that we think. We have ingrained habits around what jumps into our mind.
In Brain Briefs, Art Markman, PhD and Bob Duke, PhD, say, “One other reason we spend so little time on choices is that we have to make a lot of decisions each day. If we deliberated carefully over all of them, what are now routine aspects of our lives would take up nearly all of our time. On a typical weekly trip to the grocery store, a shopper might buy fifty items. If each choice took a full minute, that would be fifty minutes just to choose the items, plus time to walk through the aisles, wait in the checkout line, and get to and from the store. That’s a hefty chunk of the day. In fact, analysis of shopping behavior suggests that the items we select are essentially the same ones we have chosen before.”
The systems and habits approach to improvement relies on this to help us improve. If we can change our choices from, say, throwing cookies into the cart each week to throwing bananas in the cart, we can form a new habit by doing it over and over. In time, it starts to be a habit to just grab the bananas and skip the cookies.
But most of us never evaluate our habitual decisions and our routines enough to find these leverage points that we can change to have a positive impact on our personal health.
But these are important. We all know people at work that don’t get promoted because of their negative attitude towards work. But if they want to improve, they will have to change the way they interact with their coworkers, which are mostly routine thoughts and behaviors.
So the obstacles to improvement are the systems and habits in their life. To effectively change and improve, they need to tackle and change those. Otherwise all the change they think they are making will never really help them change what they need to in order to actually grow and improve.
In order to improve, we have to start changing these automatic thoughts and behaviors. The systems and habits approach relies on this to drive us towards success. This is also the reason why motivation and effort fail so often, they don’t work to change those ingrained elements and don’t last long enough to form a habit.