How to Edit Your Habits
Habits are actually kind of cool.
To form a habit, you need to repeat a specific behaviour so often that your brain literally rewires itself. It creates a new pathway that then becomes ‘easy’ for your brain to take when the appropriate scenario arises.
It’s as if you’ve dug a trench in order to redirect a stream of water. It should be no surprise, then, that if you unintentionally formed that trench and you don’t want the water flowing down it, you’re going to have to put in a little work to build a new one.
Although it doesn't always feel like it, we do have the power over these trenches. Often we dig new trenches unconsciously – like when we drive the same route to work every day, despite knowing traffic could be better on another road, or when we switch on the television to unwind after a long day.
The latter is a habit I have been so unbelievably guilty of.
I didn't necessarily sit in front of the TV for hours on end every night, but it was always – ALWAYS – on. I’d even work on the couch with my computer on my lap, with the TV chattering away for 'background noise’. Most of the time, I wasn't even really watching.
Realising this clearly wasn't the healthiest of daily rituals, I conducted a simple self-experiment to see if I could redirect that neural passageway. After all, the first step to changing any habit is becoming aware of it, right? One day, when my husband was working late, I decided that when I got home, I wasn’t going to turn on the TV.
I was so utterly unprepared for how difficult it was! Something so simple as not turning on the television, that shouldn’t logically call me any stress, was making me devastatingly uncomfortable. I felt this unexpected 'need' to hear the news running as I wondered about the house. I found myself looking at the remote as if it was an itch begging to be scratched.
Whilst wondering why this was so damn difficult (and, to be honest, feeling a little grossed out by this strong reaction), I realised that I genuinely couldn’t remember the last time I had a weeknight evening at home without the television on… not just in my working life, but all through uni, high school and primary school as well. This wasn’t something I’d just developed over the past year or so. This was a habit that had been strengthening – a trench in the brain that I'd been unaware I was digging deeper and deeper – literally since before I could remember.
The most impactful realisation was that without the ‘background noise’ I’d become so accustomed to, I was forced to find brand new ways to occupy the part of my mind that was so used to being consistently, unconsciously entertained. I suddenly becoming acutely self-aware. When I had no answers for this buried, impatient syntax, my brain quickly started to stray and ask questions like, ‘so once we finish fixing dinner, is that when we’re going to turn the TV on?’ and ‘ok, all the chores are done now, surely it’s time for TV?’ and eventually into more aggressive tones, like ‘you’re never going to be able to relax until you turn the TV on! How will you sleep tonight?’ My brain constantly urged towards that old pattern, and it took all my energy to distract it.
I looked at my watch, and it was only 7.00pm. It felt like I’d been up for hours. Was it too early to go to bed? The dog started getting anxious that nobody was sitting on the couch with her tonight (such a precious pants). I started texting anyone who might be willing for a chat. I began bargaining with myself… ‘does Netflix count as TV’?
In the end, I put on some music, and started to cook. Cooking is one of the best way I know to relax, and it worked like a charm. I ate pretty darn well that night, too! After my cooking spree, it was suddenly 10.00pm. Time flying by is a regular problem for me, when it comes to cooking, but in this case, I knew it was because I was satisfying that part of the brain begging for relief.
Even though my first night without TV was scarily uncomfortable, I gave it a second go… and then a third. Each time I tried again, it was remarkably easier. It was as if getting through that first night had broken a cycle, and I could be sure everything would still be fine. That freakishly irrational habit-trench in my brain had nothing to worry about.
This is a slightly extreme example (well, it is for me… please tell me I’m not alone!), but if nothing else, it’s been a confronting lesson that our habits can form, strengthen and control our psyche without us even being aware of it.
Habits are part of human life, but if we can form bad habits, we can form good ones.
Once we figure out how to make a good habit, and realise we have the power to edit bad ones, habits are actually pretty darn useful in achieving our goals and reaching our full potential.
To get into the habit of habits, we love a good habit tracker – a list of good habits you want to form, that you check off every day if you do them. Think of a list of 5 habits at the start of every week, and see how many you can do each day for the next 7 days. This can be anything you like – working out for 30 minutes, meditating for 10 minutes, writing 500 words, switching you morning coffee for green tea – make them simple, measurable and realistic for you and the week you have ahead of you. Even if you don’t check off everything in the list every single day, just becoming aware of the habits you want to form is a step in the right direction.