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habits

It’s going to be 2017 in a couple weeks and we all know what that means: an influx of New Year’s Resolutions. They often look a lot like the previous year’s resolutions.

“I’ll stop smoking.”

“I’ll stop obsessing.”

“I’ll stop eating badly.”

“I’ll stop being lazy.”

Stopping, quitting, refraining, avoiding – I’ve got news for you: resolutions like this rarely work.

According to a survey published in the Journal of Clinical Psychology, about 45 percent of Americans make New Year’s resolutions but only 8 percent are successful.

Confession: I was the winner of the “Unsuccessful 8%” many years in a row. I struggled to quit smoking, promising myself I’d quit every Monday and every New Year’s Day. I quit smoking so many times that the most excellent quitter became part of my identity. Understanding how my brain works finally helped me kick the habit, but here were some of my very human, very common mistakes over the years:

  • Motivated by Should
  • Propelled By Stopping
  • Fighting against Habit

Motivated by Should

My motivation for quitting was always grounded in “should” versus “want:”

  • I should because my friends and family keep guilting me
  • I should because I smell like an ashtray
  • I should because it’s really cold outside
  • I should because the daily dose of cognitive dissonance feels terrible

Propelled By Stopping

When you focus on stopping or quitting or not doing something that has become an ingrained (overeating, smoking, drinking, overspending, etc.) you fight against your natural, human urge to gain over lose.

Humans are loss-adverse; it hurts us more to lose something than to gain something (e.g. it’s more painful to lose $50 than to gain $50). Therefore, when we frame our bad habits as things we need to lose, we resist with all our might.

Fighting against Habit

To make a resolution stick you have to change. For the brain, change is danger. Change requires neural rewiring and that creates discomfort. Even the prospect of change can create significant psychological discomfort.

The effort to abstain from bad habits compels you to do them more because abstention feels bad. Ergo, you will fight to feel good.

Smoking, laziness, boredom, compulsive eating, overspending – these are all default behaviors based on habitual brain wiring to give you what will make you feel good.

To change we need to create new ways of thinking which trigger new neural pathways, which lead to new default modes of behavior.

With deliberate effort new habits become the default schema for your brain.

Reframe the challenge into something you GAIN.

  • I need to lose weight = I want to gain strength, endurance and flexibility.
  • I need to quit smoking = I want to run three miles without wheezing.
  • I need to stop overspending = I want financial flexibility and freedom.

To learn is to be human.

We begin to learn from the minute we are born.

Therefore, challenging yourself to learn something new flows with the grain of human nature; challenging yourself to lose something you like goes against human nature. Use the word “learn” to counter the effects of the stop language of resolutions. You are not quitting smoking, you are learning how to be a non-smoker.

The Neuroscience Behind Habits

Habits live in the most stubborn of our brain structures: the basal ganglia. The basal ganglia stores useful skills and habits: putting our socks on before our shoes or effortlessly driving our usual route to work.

The basal ganglia can also be a curse: it can cause you to habitually drive home from work along your normal route when you had meant to stop at the grocery store. It contains all of the skills and memories we need to function on a daily basis but could also potentially contribute to keeping you in a rut.

To learn to tie your shoes takes a tremendous amount of initial brainpower, but once learned it consumes very little. As we master these small routines, dopamine rewards us with feelings of pleasure. So we are perpetually rewarded for maintaining our habits, good and bad alike.

When you try to change a habit you activate the prefrontal cortex, a very active part of the brain that helps us focus our thoughts; this requires a lot of conscious mental energy.

The prefrontal cortex is connected to the emotional center of our brain. A firestorm of emotions (fear, anger, depression, fatigue, anxiety, etc) is triggered when the brain senses change. When you think, “I want to change this habit” your brain kicks into protection mode and tries to fiercely protect the habits it has grown to love.

The Bottom Line and What to Do About It

Change is brutal and triggers psychological and emotional discomfort. Change takes time, discipline, a plan and some basic TLC (if / when you have a lapse). Recognize that you will naturally want to hold onto your own personal status quo.

Charles Duhigg, author of The Power of Habit suggests a three-stage process for creating positive habits:

  1. Cue: Since habits are triggered by cues (triggers or signals that tell you to act in a certain way) identify cues that will help you meet your goal. Cues are often centered on location, time, emotional state, other people or immediately preceding an action. For example, if you typically find yourself noshing on junk at your desk every afternoon at 3PM, identify a 3PM cue that helps you learn the new habit (e.g., get up from your desk and go for a 10 minute walk, chug a bottle of water and set a 15 minute timer before you put anything else in your mouth)
  1. Routine: Be very specific about the steps you will take to form the habit. For example, if you want to work on gaining strength, endurance and flexibility, schedule the times you will do your chosen exercise throughout the day and the foods you will be eat that day.
  1. Reward: In order to neutrally embed the new behavior, reward yourself with something related to the habit. Perhaps it’s recognizing the endorphin rush after a workout or the taste of a healthy breakfast following a workout. If you anticipate and associate the reward with the action, your brain eventually craves the reward, further entrenching the habit.

Hopefully this insight will help you if you wake up in February and you haven’t made any progress into your resolutions.

Instead of giving up completely, figure out what you really want to do differently. Frame the goal into something that you are gaining (vs. losing) and learning (vs. stopping).

Respect your brain. It will need some time to incorporate the new behavior into your life.

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“You’re not watching with me.”

“I am! I can do both, I have to check something.”

“Then check and then we’ll watch the show.”

“It’s fine, just keep watching, I’m paying attention.”

“But it feels weird to watch alone while you’re doing something else.”

“It’s fine, I’m watching. Here, I’m putting it down, you happy?”

“Yes, thank you.”

“So catch me up.”

This is an exchange that happens from time to time in front of the TV between my husband and I. In this exchange he and I are interchangeable as we’ve both played each role, each requesting that the other put down their phone in order to be present and watch TV together.

TV is clearly insufficient entertainment at this point in our modern lives. A story on a screen is all fine and good but what about our story? When will the TV tell me about my life? Well, I know what will: my beautiful adoring phone.

So now the TV is on and we’re scrolling through Facebook, Twitter, Linkedin, Snapchat and Instagram. When we return to the TV we no longer understand the plot. When we return to our phones we feel a diminishing dopamine reward. We’re now caught in a limbo of unsatisfying entertainment. Maybe at this point we go and look for something to eat, or we text a friend hoping for a response. The friend doesn’t text back and there’s nothing in the fridge.

We decide to get ready for bed. We get into bed and we repeat the same TV/phone routine in bed until we pass out. We wake up, we immediately check our email. Out of the shower, we check our phone for updates. We get dressed, we check our phone for updates. We’re almost annoyed by the time it takes to get dressed as we can see something is lighting up on the phone while we are putting our boring pants on. When did getting dressed get so boring and insufferable!?

We do not know how to be bored.

Our intolerance for boredom is one of the primary reasons our productivity suffers. It is not the phone or Facebook, those are secondary causes. Before we check Facebook we are bored. Before we text a friend it is because we are bored.

This is the result of being ego-based creatures with brains that seek pleasure and reward at all costs. Humans have never been comfortable with boredom. Most of us do whatever we can to resist being alone with ourselves. We turn on the TV, we read, we call a friend, we go to the movies, we go out to dinner, we get drinks, whatever, whenever.

We rarely sit with our own minds and practice being present in the moment. As the Internet develops and social media broadens the number of distractions it is increasingly difficult to ignore the lure of self-attention.

It’s no mistake that one of the common activities of successful people in many online articles is “meditation.” Meditation is the practice of sitting, of being present, allowing thoughts to flow without following each one down its windy, unending, tangential path.

Without this practice it is difficult to withstand the moments of boredom in life when nothing is happening on Facebook, nobody is texting you, you’ve seen all the episodes of The Walking Dead, and you haven’t read a book in years.

Why you need to work on your attentiveness

If you’re growing your business or just working on a spreadsheet you need the skill of attentiveness in your arsenal. Otherwise your willpower will deplete as you think about all the other things you could be doing, seeing, eating, reading, and talking about. You’ll overhear someone in the office talking about last night’s Game of Thrones episode and you’ll leap out of your chair like a dog greeting its owner that just came back from war.

There’s a darker undercurrent to not being able to withstand boredom, which is that boredom is becoming synonymous with sadness. The withdrawal from Internet addiction, from TV, or any “substance” can lead to a sadness that nothing is happening right now.

Resisting temptation – to abstain from distraction – depletes our willpower. The more depleted our willpower, the less we are able to attend to important projects and important conversations. So at first, it would seem like it’s best to give into temptation, i.e. give into the chocolate chip cookies, give into drugs, give in to McDonalds. Give in, give in, give in. But over time, with all the giving in, your body gets sick. Same with our minds. Giving in to every distraction versus training your brain to be still creates a scattered, inattentive mind.

How to get rid of the distractions

What needs to happen is you build the habit of focus by building the habit of distraction management (e.g., turning off your notifications when you are working, scheduling times to check social media and email, etc.). Behaviors that become habitualized do not deplete willpower. Of course the process of building the habit will be exhausting, difficult and depleting, but once it is built, it becomes a routine that does not sap your energy.

Thus it will no longer look like this:

work>email>work>facebook>work>twitter

but rather something like this:

Work>work>work>email>facebook>work>work>work

Or something to that effect, depending on what your distraction of choice is.

Make a concerted effort to turn off all modes of distraction. This involves silencing your phone, turning off any banner notifications for social media and email, not opening instant messaging, maybe turning off wifi altogether, and sitting yourself down in a locale that isn’t distraction-prone. Just like we learned to distract over time, we can learn to attend over time too. It takes sustained practice to build your attention muscle and diminish your distraction fat.

But the fact remains that sometimes life is boring. Boredom is a mild form of pain. Humans resist pain and seek pleasure in every moment of life. The pleasure we get from work distractions, however, diminishes over time, yet we keep chasing our fix. The chase serves to damage your long-term ability to focus on a task. If we can increase our boredom stamina we will rehabilitate our minds and increase our productivity. A fit and focused mind is less ‘distractible’. Yes, it is that simple.

Now, I have to go and see if anyone liked my post on Facebook.

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