We all utilize habits and routines throughout our lives. This helps us automate actions and thoughts that we do over and over and over.
We don’t want to have to watch a YouTube video every morning to remember how to brush our teeth or take a shower. We don’t want to have to think about every little step in the process.
Some people assume these must be instincts but they are not. Cavemen didn’t have showers and sinks. These aren’t instincts that we are born with; they are habits that we develop.
In Consumer.ology, The Market Research Myth, the Truth about Consumers and the Psychology of Shopping, author Philip Graves says, “Most people can identify with that moment of driving a car when they realize that, for some indiscernible amount of time, they have been driving without conscious awareness. The section of journey has been uneventful, they have progressed without incident or harm, but they have no recollection of what has occurred or for how long they have been consciously absent from the driving process.”
What Graves is pointing to isn’t just a phenomenon with driving. In almost any area of our lives that we do over and over, we form this autopilot mode which can simultaneously carry out the steps and leave our mind free to think about something else.
The systems and habits approach to improvement focuses on this automation to help us succeed. It takes the actions and thoughts we have and starts to investigate how we can tweak them slightly and then reprogram the routine to help us improve.
If we evaluate how we use the same unconscious approach to eating lunch, this means that we can eat fast food every day, make a sensible lunch to take to work or anything in between but that it is all happening from habit and routine more than we realize.
Even when we drive, we may be the type to avoid properly using a blinker but it is a habit not a deliberate choice at each turn. If we want to improve as a driver we can start to change those automatic actions we take.
It might seem easy to just switch then. Switch to eating healthy or switch to using the blinker in the car more often. But it isn’t this simple.
The reason we don’t switch is because these ingrained habits pull us without our mind’s involvement. Switching sounds easy and sounds as though it is a simply matter of choice. But it isn’t.
We assume we can just decide tomorrow to eat healthy. It will be easy, we think. But then tomorrow comes and we find ourselves in our automated mindset doing what we have always done.
And if we can break that automation enough to think and choose, we often find that the choice becomes incredibly difficult the closer we get to make that choice. The power of habit is strong, and changing tends to sound easier than it is actually is.
That choice is easy when we think some time in the future we will have to choose. We assume it will be easy to just choose the right option. But then it becomes more and more difficult as that moment of decision approaches.
Using the systems and habits approach to improvement, we don’t try to tackle these instances with all of our might. We don’t assume we will just choose the right option with the right knowledge around our choices.
Instead we start to attack these routines. We look at them and find very small elements that we can change. Then we change. Then we do those new actions again and again and again.
It may take months or even years for these to start to be as ingrained as the current behaviors (which we have spent a lifetime reinforcing). But if we can start to do this with very small steps and keep going, we can start to reconstruct our autopilot mode.
What if, instead of autopilot telling us to grab fast food for lunch every day, our autopilot made a veggie wrap each night right after dinner to be eaten the next day at lunch? We can make it easy by starting out by filling it with foods we really like. After some time we can add more healthy options in the wrap.
Slowly, over time, we rewrite all of these autopilot routines. Since we don’t consciously think about them anyways, it doesn’t impact our happiness either. It just becomes the way we do it, always there just below the surface of having to consciously think about it every time. This can unlock the unconscious mind and create a new way of approaching life and improvement and give us a way to decide what our autopilot does.