Changing Habits – I

Many of us have habits we think we would be better without.  Usually we have tried to change those, but too often without long term success. In this and the next two classes we will be looking at habits, the ways that habits develop, and methods and techniques for changing habits effectively and sustainably.

In our first session we will explore habits and the processes which create and maintain them.

What is a habit?

A habit is a repeated pattern of behavior that occurs without significant effort, and that takes more effort to stop than to continue.

How do we develop habits?

Habits arise out of our tendency to act in ways that make us feel better quickly. As we go through the day we have experiences that are pleasant and those that are unpleasant. Our brain remembers the behaviors that increase pleasure or reduce displeasure. The faster the increase or decrease the more strongly the brain remembers. That reinforcement makes the behaviors more and more automatic.

Let’s explore the habit of brushing our teeth before bed. We weren’t born with that habit, and since brushing our teeth is not particularly pleasurable it is unlikely we would have developed that habit on our own. We developed that habit because we experienced the approval of our parents when we brushed our teeth, and their disapproval if we didn’t. Gaining the approval of our parents was pleasant, and avoiding their disapproval was also pleasant. Our brain connected the behavior of brushing our teeth with a pleasant feeling. Over time brushing our teeth before bed became automatic. We now feel a sense of discontent if we do not brush our teeth. It takes less effort to brush our teeth than to deal with the discontent of not brushing our teeth.

What makes a habit helpful or unhelpful?

The difference between helpful habits and unhelpful habits is their effect on the pressures we face. Helpful habits reduce pressure by reducing demands or increasing resources. Unhelpful habits increase pressure by increasing demands or reducing resources.

When we brush our teeth we are benefiting our teeth, protecting a resource and that reduces pressure in the long run. If we are tired and think about going to bed without brushing our teeth then we feel discontent and we reduce the discontent by brushing our teeth. This is a helpful habit.

When we are faced with an unpleasant task and procrastinate then the discontent we felt about doing the task goes away. However, the demand of the task stays the same while the resource of time to do the task shrinks, thus increasing the pressure we are under. So procrastination reduces discontent but increases pressure. This is an unhelpful habit.

Why are helpful habits harder to develop than unhelpful habits?

All habits reduce discontent. Helpful habits reduce discontent and reduce pressure.  Unhelpful habits, like procrastination, reduce discontent but increase pressure. Unfortunately, of all the behaviors that will reduce discontent, most of them will not reduce pressure. Furthermore, the behaviors that reduce pressure may require some training before they also reduce discontent.

Let’s look at brushing our teeth. Generally children experience a lot of discontent when they first start brushing their teeth. The toothbrush feels weird and the toothpaste tastes “yucky”. So parents work hard to give approval so that the children experience feeling contentment or pleasure after brushing their teeth. Over time, months to years, the children get used to the toothbrush and the toothpaste and the discontent goes away. They are then left with the feeling of contentment after brushing their teeth. Brushing their teeth is now a habit, but it took effort.

How can we develop helpful habits?

Most helpful habits begin as helpful behaviors that are not habits. That is, the behaviors are helpful but require significant effort and are easier to stop than to continue. To turn helpful behaviors into helpful habits we need to look for ways to make those behaviors reduce discontent as well as reduce pressure.

The process of attending is extremely helpful as we look for ways to develop helpful habits. We look for ways of shaping our behaviors in helpful ways while also reducing discontent.

Simple example: I often find myself feeling restless as I type blog posts, especially if I am struggling with how to express an idea. I found that surfing to other websites would relieve my discontent, however that would not help me write my post. This was not a helpful habit.

My blogging site asks me if I want to leave the page if I try to surf elsewhere. So I exerted some effort to click “No” instead of “Yes”. So I developed the new habit of clicking on another site link and then clicking the “No” button to stay on my blogging page. This was now a new habit, and it did not waste any significant amount of time.

By paying close attention to what I was experiencing I was able to notice that the brief pause I got from clinking a different site link and then clicking “No” was what was relieving my discontent.  Clearly what would be more helpful was simply closing my eyes and taking my hands off the keyboard frequently.

This helped me develop my current habit of taking very brief breaks to rest my eyes and wrists frequently. This habit helps me deal with the pressure of creating a post more effectively.

Suggested assignment for class next week:

Please review the chapter on  basic attending, chapter 3, in Real Meditation in Minutes a Day.

Use the attending technique to explore the thoughts, sensations and feelings associated with a habit. Look for how the habit reduces discontent, i.e. makes you feel better at least in the short run. Also look for how the habit affects the demands and resources you face.

Try to do this for one helpful and one unhelpful habit and bring that to class if you are comfortable doing so.



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