Monday, July 1, 2013
Habit: Part 1
The one absolute truism that no belief system can change, that no amount of desire or discipline can change, is that humans are habit-forming creatures. The question is never if you will form habits, it's only a matter of which thoughts and behaviors will become habits, and how and what to do about the ones you already have.
Habit is a beautiful thing. This internal mechanism guarantees that our thoughts and behaviors will become second-nature. That is, we only have to exert conscious influence about something for a short period of time before our subconscious and unconscious take over. Hold a thought, or perform an action enough times, and all decision-making disappears. You begin to think the thought or perform the action quite literally without thinking about it.
Like your morning routine. How much thought do give to what happens after awaking in the morning? For most of us, not much. Get up, have coffee, take a shower... And the more thought we have to give, the more complex the activity and routine, the more stress we feel because we have to engage our conscious mind to make decisions around routines that we typically rely on habit to complete.
If you add checking email to that routine, or getting the kids ready for school, or making lunch before you leave for work, you begin to add decision-making into the mix, and what was simple habit becomes more complex. Instead of simple acting out of habit, you have to think, decide and execute.
Staying consciously engaged can be exhausting, and we human beings have a finite capacity for that kind of engagement. We have a certain amount of energy available for thinking about decisions, and most of that energy is used in pretty routine ways, so an added burden to that energetic load is significant. It's why we forget to do easy things, like pick up milk, or deposit the check, or anything else that might be out of the ordinary. Because if it's not a habit, if we have to think about it, we just might not have the extra energy for one more thing that day.
Human beings succeed in simplicity, and we fail in complexity. And it's simple math that we do. This isn't about intelligence or mental capacity or intellectual complexity. This is about how human beings use energy. And the more we can rely on this marvelous mechanism of habit to steer us positively, the fewer choices we have to make about how to think, act, and behave, so the greater the chance that we'll succeed at being the kind of person we want to be.
There is no secret to long-term success at any endeavor. It's simply this: make it a habit. Whatever it is, make it a habit, or you will not be able to sustain your effort. If you want to have more peace of mind, make your spiritual practice a habit. If you want to lose weight, make your new eating plan a habit. If you want to read more and watch less TV, make it a habit.
You can try every other kind of approach; you can try overcoming bad habits with the sheer force of your willpower, but whatever success you have doing that will end the minute you face one more decision in your day, a little bit of tiredness, or a change in routine that throws you off your game. Success depends on most of your decisions being simple and habitual so you have enough energy to think about the big stuff when it comes along, and make good decisions when you have to.
If you are using all that decision-making energy just to figure out what to have for dinner, or what to wear to work, then you've got nothing left when you really need it. And that's why we fail in complexity. Because daily life demands a lot of us, and always more than we're expecting, and multiple demands overwhelm our capacity. It's not a human failing. It's just how it goes.
Stay tuned for the next installment about habit, when we explore how spiritual practice enhances our habit-forming capacity and enables it to really work on our behalf.