One of the reasons why the systems and habits approach can be so powerful is because it follows how our body functions. All animals follow patterns. There is rhythm to our sleep/wake cycles, how we chew food, the routines we rely on each day and much more.
The systems and habits approach to improvement plugs into this by creating recurring thoughts and behaviors. The more we do something, consistently near the same time each day, the more that pattern will become engrained.
In Welcome to Your Brain by Sandra Aamodt, Ph.D. and Sam Wang, Ph.D, the authors explain while using the example of walking and chewing gum, “Walking or chewing demonstrates your brain’s ability to generate a rhythm. Animals can generate cycles on a wide range of time scales, from seconds (heartbeat, breathing), to days (sleeping), to a month (menstrual cycles), and even longer (hibernation). All these rhythms are generated by built-in mechanisms and adjusted based on external events or commands.”
This is very interesting. Our body’s natural way of going through all of these regulated, recurring actions follows an internal or external rhythm or pattern. Some of these happen automatically without our ability to control (menstrual cycles) but others happen regularly and we have some control over (breathing) and still others happen but we have a large impact over how we regulate them (sleeping).
So when we start a new job that forces up to wake up earlier than we are used to, we can change the natural rhythm.
Years ago I owned a business working with musicians. This forced me to adjust to their schedules and often it meant working long nights until 3 or 4 am. I didn’t have much work scheduled for early morning hours so my natural sleep pattern was to sleep in late and stay up late.
Then I decided to change my career and I started a job that started every day around 8am. At first it was a little difficult to wake up and get to sleep early enough, but after a few months I was following a whole new pattern.
Then after a few years I noticed that, even if I wanted to stay up really late and sleep in, I couldn’t. I get extremely tired and am asleep by midnight. I wake up at 6am, wide-awake, and can’t sleep in late like I used to.
In other words, our body’s rhythms can be changed. We can adjust to a new sleep schedule. Many of our body’s rhythms can be changed similar to how we change our sleep.
When I was younger I had asthma and allergies. This, along with a deviated septum, not drinking enough water, and a host of other factors, caused me to breathe in very short shallow breaths for much of my life.
I never even noticed this until a doctor pointed it out one day when I was in my twenties. These shallow breaths actually caused me to be in a permanently anxious state and not relax. It was as if I took each breath unsure of when the next breath would come so I held it in and only took in small spurts of air at a time. This also caused me to tighten my diaphragm and stomach muscles to control the breathing.
With a lot of work on breathing techniques, surgery to correct the deviated septum, changing my diet, drinking more water etc. I was able to change this rhythm. While it was something internal that I didn’t even think about, once I was made aware of what was happening and started changing the systems and habits around this, I started to see significant improvement.
Using the systems and habits techniques, you can start to improve areas that might seem below our level of consciousness but are actually impacted by the things we are thinking and doing. We can slowly start to change these rhythms.
Dr. Aamodt and Dr. Wang go on to say, “Your ability to generate rhythms simultaneously shows that your brain can generate multiple patterns at once, often independently…This pattern generator can work on its own, since headless cockroaches and chickens can produce walking movements, but they still need their brains to keep everything coordinated and to negotiate obstacles.”
The brain is fascinating and we really are just scratching the surface on neurological knowledge. But knowing how much rhythm and pattern are a part of our bodily functions we can start to build positive habits and patterns that help us lead a more successful, happy life.