Why changing habits is difficult, and the 4 steps to making it happen.
Changing habits is notoriously difficult.
This is because we live most of our lives on ‘automatic pilot’, ie, through our default habits. For most of life this makes sense as it stops us wasting our energy focused on things that can work efficiently without too much attention; walking, eating, driving and a host of other practical and social issues.
Changing habits therefore seems to be working against the flow.
King Whitney, Jr, said “Change has a considerable psychological impact on the human mind. To the fearful it is threatening because it means that things may get worse. To the hopeful it is encouraging because things may get better.”
But changes that happen around about us is far from the same as changing our own thoughts, emotions and habits.
Our own unconscious resistance to change is the most important challenge facing anyone trying to change any habit. Key reasons for this are:
- A lack of planning in the run up to our change journey, and a lack of sustained practice, practice, practice as we progress.
- This can create slippage and blockage, that leads to resistance and eventually a reversion to our default practices.
- We tend to expect linear progress but research in the fields of neuroscience show us that the change process is in fact non-linear and chaotic. We need to recognise this and plan for it up front.
- Focusing on the threat and so turning the change journey from a positive experience into a negative one.
- This is known to drive a ‘limbic’ response, so rather than feeling motivated to change we feel overly anxious and uncomfortable and undermine our own efforts. Again we need to recognise this and plan for it up front.
A good tool to help you with this is my ebooklet How to become unstuck which you can download here.
There are practical steps we can all take when we identify habits that need to be changed. Indeed, there are 4 steps.
So Let us look at each of these.
We need to raise the level of our own self-awareness through self-reflection of our thoughts, emotions and behaviour. For it is our thoughts and emotions that drive our behaviour, and so our habits. See my article 5 steps to greater self-awareness
The paradox of change is that we need to accept who we are before we can become who we want to be. Frederick Perls noted “change occurs when one becomes what he is, not when he tries to become what he is not.” This is because we are invariable stuck in a place where we think we ‘should be’. See my article What are limiting beliefs? And how do we get rid of them?
It is worth bearing in mind that our brains are hard wired in such a way that ensures we are either people or task orientated. This means we will ‘naturally’ make more use of;
- a network of brain areas connecting the midline (around the dorsal and ventromedial) if we are people orientated,
- or make more use of the dorsal and ventral attention systems if we are task orientated.
What is important to note is that the use of either of these suppresses the other. And within the brain, the strength of either will depend on how often it is used.
So if we naturally use one in favour of the other this will become stronger and stronger, while the other becomes weaker and weaker.
In order to counter this process, we first need to become aware of it, then accept it, and then take the time to reconnect with our ‘other’ side through repetitive use.
Practice, practice, practice the new thought or behaviour (to establish the new habit) changing the old saying ‘practice makes perfect’ to ‘practice makes permanent’.
This step is often referred to as giving focused attention (but focused attention to the positive journey, not the negative consequences).
It has long been accepted, you get what you focus on.
But we need to recognise that this is a highly energy intensive act that will deflect energy from other areas and activities and so can be difficult to sustain.
Engage in a purposeful relationship (often with a coach, mentor or counsellor) to help keep you on track. Remembering it will take a lot of self-reflection and incisive questioning to raise our self-awareness, and lots of self-management and motivation to keep focused attention and repetitive practice. See my YouTube on What is Coaching.
Bringing it all together
While change might be ever present, changing our own habits is a perennially difficult matter. But there are recognised steps to support change, especially with recent findings in the field of the neurosciences. Like most things worth having though it all starts with the self, as the ancient Greeks noted long ago through their aphorism ‘know thyself’.
Pre-order my book Discover the Power of You: How to Cultivate Change for Positive and Productive Cultures due for publication through John Hunt Publishing Ltd in August 2017.
See https://www.robertadams.uk.com/ for Transformational Workbook which can be used for self development or team and organisational development.
And see http://robertadams.teachable.com/ for my online course offer, including my V.A.L.O.R. Approach to Improvement.