What if we take all of the automatic behaviors and automatic choices we make, and start to mold those into something new? Can we take a series of habits that we are not even aware of and change those to drive us in a new direction?
Yes we can. We can start to make subtle changes that have lasting impact. It won’t happen by making the choice once, but it certain is within our abilities if we can make the choice over and over and over.
The systems and habits approach to improvement relies on this belief. It says that we can make very small tweaks, do them often and then slowly turn those into the routines, habits and automatic aspects of our lives.
The other day I went on a short weekend trip with my brothers. We decided to get away and spend a little time relaxing.
Before we left I commented that I was going to eat whatever I wanted and just enjoy the trip. I fully expected to gain a little weight but after working hard for weeks I thought it was a good chance to let loose a little.
After about an hour of driving we decided to stop for some lunch. As we settled into our booth, I grabbed the menu. I scanned the menu in my normal way, and ultimately decided to order fish with broccoli and carrots.
As soon as I did my brother commented, “I thought you were going to let loose this weekend and eat unhealthy?”
Immediately I realized what I just did and said, “Oh shoot I completely forgot. Oh well.”
To me this is the power of habit. It got me to completely ignore the plans to eat unhealthy food all weekend.
But what is interesting is that, years ago, I would have done the exact opposite. I would vow to eat healthy from now on, only to forget as soon as I start scanning the menu, ultimately ordering something unhealthy.
Another part of the new habit showed up later when the food arrived. I didn’t have very high expectations since it was a healthy option but turned out to be surprisingly tasty. So it didn’t impact my enjoyment of the meal or the weekend in any negative way and actually enhanced it.
So how can we use systems and habits to improve without the discomfort normally associated with trying to do something good to improve?
In Consumer.ology by Philip Graves, the author says, “The more familiar and efficient the process is (or any one part of it is), the more likely it is to be driven by mental processes outside of conscious awareness. How much of an American consumer’s soda-buying process is not conscious? The consistent branding of the pack, selected from the same point on the shelf in the store that is visited every day or every week – there’s a strong argument to say that the purchase often functions just like that moment of the car journey, passing smoothly without conscious involvement.”
We need to be able to adjust our life to make the more familiar and efficient also the more beneficial to us. For most, those tend to be different so our habits and unconscious thoughts and behaviors run in the opposite direction of improvement. Then when it gets really bad, we commit to change by trying to have our willpower overcome those powerful automations.
But willpower is limited and assuming willpower is powerful enough to overcome these thoughts and behaviors is a mistake. Instead we need to harness these ingrained aspects of our lives and change them to move us forward instead of backwards. Following the systems and habits approach to improvement is a great way to do this because it uses the exact principles that built the habit in the first place.