What happens when you feel stymied in changing some long standing habits? Whether it’s healthy eating, getting more exercise, or how we communicate in meetings, all of us know people or have struggled ourselves with changing some long standing patterns.
Our Habits are Brain Grooves
And no wonder. Recent Princeton studies suggest that as much as 40% of what we do daily are habits; things that we do automatically, without thinking. Little choices that have built up over time to create the form of our daily lives. Recent studies in neuroplasticity tell us that neural circuits themselves change based on our repeated behaviour. The neural circuits associated with actions we do repeatedly are coated with myelin – a fatty insulating substance, that enables them to be much faster. And that’s a good thing; this automatic, speedy reaction enables us to conserve personal energy, be efficient in our actions and direct our precious creative attention to where it’s most needed. Many of our habits that we now engage in automatically were once new and carefully in place. Personally, it took me years to get used to flossing!
Are We Chained to our Habits?
So if these long term habits are associated with deep brain patterns – are we then are a prisoner of our habits? What does it mean to say we have free will or personal agency? And if we are used to thinking of ourselves as people who can turn intentions into actions, how do we feel about ourselves when we can’t seem to change our habits? If it doesn’t fit with our self-identity, do we avoid the issue? or just resign ourselves?
Changing a habit takes time. While it varies depending on the person and the habit, studies indicate that brain changes can start about 30 days after you start a new habit. Consistently demonstrating the new behaviours in a variety of situations can take from 30 days to many months. This prospect can feel really daunting!
Free Won’t Buys You Free Choice
The good news is that there is a short term window of opportunity – sometimes called Free Won’t. Studies have indicated that there is a brief period – up to 2 seconds – when we are aware of an urge but have not yet acted on it. So you can grab your Free Won’t by resisting your typical urges within the first seconds of becoming aware of them. And if your sense of self-esteem needs a boost, consider that refraining from an act is no less an act of free will than committing an act! While it’s not nearly as simple as “Just Say No”, this Free Won’t does buy you a crucial window of opportunity to disengage from your patterns and start to build new ones.
What else do you need to support you once you’ve engaged your Free Won’t? Of course, you need to be excited about an alternative and have positive intentions for personal change. But intentions are the easy part – necessary but not sufficient. Some studies indicate that 20% of behaviour change comes from antecedents such as intention and 80% comes from positive consequences.
- you need to have ready an alternate course of action that is in some ways satisfying, e.g. instead of smoking, do a breathing exercise; instead of eating cookies, have an apple handy
- you need to know what context will likely trigger your typical urges e.g. the mid afternoon hunger pangs
- you need to have positive role models, friends who encourage you in the new behaviour, or a coach to guide you through the process
- you need to become very familiar with your dark side, to make friends with your weakness and to say No over and over again until you have built a new Yes
- you need to learn how to work at your edge; make an effort and fail, again and again until you feel personally competent and those new neural circuits are just humming along!
Happy Free Won’t!