Gary 'Smiler' Turner's Blog

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Tuesday, 27 November 2012

Building a Better Habit

Everything you do is building a habit, building a skill, building myelin. In just a few repetitions of behaviour a habit is being formed. Myelin is being laid down around your neurology. That myelin is an insulation sheath that protects and makes the neuronal firing more efficient. The more repetitions of behaviour you carry out the stronger the myelin builds – and the more efficient the habit. If everything you do is creating a skill – what kind of skill do you want to create?

Practice doesn’t make perfect. It makes permanent. It makes myelin. 

Myelin is permanent. Once you have started building this sheath it will be there until you go.
Actually, some myelin will go with old age, and also certain diseases such as Alzheimer’s. Yet we can consider it as being permanent. Once you have built a habit you will have that habit for life. 

Many people try and “break a habit”. Good luck, it won’t happen. That habit is hardwired. Instead you need to build a new habit, one that is stronger than the old. 

Let’s think of a habit like this:

Stimulus -> pattern of behaviour = habit

A stimulus in this circumstance is something that sets off a pattern of behaviour, a trigger. We have learned to have this response, yet that is a different blog post. The stimulus sets of the same pattern of behaviour every time. A couple of quick examples of this would be:

Boxing: “I see the hand move, and I slip the punch to the outside.”

Smoking or other addictions: “I turn the engine on in the car and I just have to have a cigarette.”

Instead of trying to break a habit, which won’t happen, you need to build a new habit, one that is even stronger than the old. So instead of carrying out the old pattern of behaviour you create a new pattern off the stimulus, one that is even stronger. Not this, this

If you want to make this new pattern stronger then look to emotion. Motivation is “movement through emotion”, and there are biological and physiological reasons why this is true. Look to forming a positive emotion with the new habit – this helps to move us more easily towards what we want. 

You will need a bit of effort to do this, to make it an ‘unconscious’ action. It has been written that we go through:

Unconscious incompetence – we don’t know we’re doing something wrong/bad
Conscious incompetence – we know we’re doing something wrong/bad
Conscious competence – we act to change and know when we’re doing something right
Unconscious competence – we just get it right automatically

In other words, we have a habit, we become aware of that habit, we consciously make efforts to change, and in time we just carry out the new behaviour.

Yet here’s the thing. Many people try and build this new habit, and yet find themselves carrying out exactly the same old habit as before. This is because the old habit is so strong – the myelin makes it efficient. Many people therefore give up, saying that they can’t do it, looking for excuses to quit trying to change. 

So why not ‘bypass’ the old stimulus and response? In the two examples above, something has to happen before the punch is thrown, and before the key turns the engine on. How about using an earlier stimulus to create a new habit, one that is more beneficial, which takes us past the old stimulus and habit?

In the smoking example before the engine is turned on the person must open the door. How about using this as the new stimulus, which starts a pattern of behaviour that goes past the old stimulus and response?

I know that smoking addiction is a combination of psychological, physical, and to minor extent biological needs. A new behaviour would need to satisfy all of these. An appropriate desired new behaviour could be that as the door is opened and you sit in, you breathe deeply, breathe out and relax your body in the process. The breathing out relaxes you and removes any craving (nicotine craving, on a physical level, is not that strong at all!). You could then tap your fingers on the steering wheel and start humming a happy tune as you turn the engine on. This creates a neurological distraction and gives your fingers and mouth a new task to do. Then you start to drive, cigarette free, calmer, in a way which is safest and healthiest for you, satisfying you every bit as much physically and even more so emotionally. 

My advice is don’t try and break a habit – you can’t. Do build a new habit, and make it stronger than the old by adding positive emotion to what you want. And to give you every chance of building the strongest new habit – start it off an earlier stimulus, so that the new behaviour starts before and passes right past where you used to have the old. 

Get inventive, and see what new habits and skills you can build!

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