Mindset Monday: Habits, Associations, and Learning

Today I want to talk about habits, association and learning.  I, however, don’t want to talk about these in the context of current behavior, or the things we do now. I want to talk more about the importance of these things in creating new habits that will support change you want to make going forward, long term, and without making it feel like a constant chore.  It’s like so many other things in life, with a little thought, and a lot of practice, you can set yourself up for long term sustained success with whatever new behaviors you are trying to build in.

First, let’s talk about these words, the meaning of each, how they relate to mindset, and making and sustaining lasting lifestyle change.

Association – the process of forming mental connections or bonds between sensations, ideas, or memories

Habit – an acquired mode of behavior that has become nearly or completely involuntary 

Learning – modification of a behavioral tendency by experience

Associations are connections in our brains that relate triggers to outcomes and outcomes to results.  Something happens, and we do something else.  We wake up, and take a shower.  Noon time comes around, and we get hungry for lunch.  We go to the movies, and we eat popcorn.  Having that popcorn, taking the shower, and taking the lunch break makes us feel satisfied and comfortable, because it’s what we always do, and our brains know that.  One is associated with the other.

Habits are when those associations become so strong, that they literally become hard-wired in our brains. At that point, we don’t have to think at all about doing them, it’s automatic, and it feels like they just happen.  Driving for example. As anyone who has ever taught someone to drive knows, it’s actually a lot of work!  So many different things to think about, the gas, brake, steering, signals, air conditioning, mirrors, radio, signs, traffic, signals, brake lights.  Yet, with experience, it feels so effortless to us that we begin looking for other things do while driving, like eating breakfast, combing our hair, talking on the phone (hands-free please!), and enjoying the scenery. In his book, The Power of Habit, Charles Duhigg explains how people who lose the ability to remember anything, can still do many things because of these hardwired connections that have been made in their brains.

Learning is work. Learning is the process of putting in effort to develop new skills, knowledge, and behaviors. Learning is almost the opposite of habit.  It is not automatic, it does not feel natural, and it is not easy. Think again about learning how to drive.  It’s stressful, difficult, scary, and dangerous, and not fun.  And, it will be just like that for the entire time that we are learning.  After a while, as we shift from learning to doing, it becomes easier.  The associations are made, when something happens we already know what to do next automatically, we don’t have to think about every single step, it gets easier.  It begins to become normal, we develop good habits, and before you know we are driving down the road safely, stress free and relaxed, enjoying our time behind the wheel, feeling empowered because we can take ourselves wherever we want to go.

With ongoing behavior change, the problems come in later in life, it gets more difficult to learn and change. We get busy, impatient, and we are full of habits that have become really strong, burned into our brains for years. On top of that, we forget what it’s like to learn new things, and that it takes a lot of work.  Also, the things we are often trying to change are habit, long time habits, and they are even more difficult to un-learn, or re-wire, than learning something entirely new. It’s like a double whammy, difficult on top of difficult, unlearning and learning at the same time.  Add to that our tendencies toward impatience and super busy schedules, and it’s a miracle that any adult can make a lasting change in their life. It’s not impossible though, and that’s what I want to talk about today.

If it’s so hard, then how can we make lasting life changes? How can we break old habits?  How can we develop new, healthy habits?  Habits that will accelerate us toward achieving our goals, rather than hold us back and make them more difficult for us?  These are big questions, and there is no silver bullet answer that will work for everything or everyone. It’s a process, and it’s not very easy, but like learning how to drive a car, if we stick with it, we can do it!  And, there are some helpful tools that we can use too.

Identify your habit

First, identify the habits you want to break or build. This should be an easy one, create a note on your phone that you can add to throughout the day. When you notice that you’ve done something so routine that you didn’t have to think about it, jot it down. For me, one that I need to work on is going for a snack when I get home from work every day. Sure, at some point I came home hungry, and needed something to eat. But, I am sure that’s not it anymore. It doesn’t matter what time, or how much I had for lunch that day. When I get home, I say hello to Cathy and the boys and walk over to the pantry to grab a few nuts, or some dried fruit. It’s certainly not a terrible habit, but it’s not necessarily a good one either. The fact alone that it happens so automatic is enough to make me want to break it. So, I’ve got a habit, now what should I do?

Identify your trigger

Next, identify the trigger for your habit. The trigger is what prompts you to go into autopilot. Think about it, what initiates your habit? It could be as simple as coming home from work, like in my case. Or, it could be walking into the movie theater and before you know it you are in line for greasy popcorn. Do you wake up in the morning and go straight for coffee, or breakfast? Why do you do that?

Figure out the reward

That’s the reward.  The reward is what you are really looking for, and the habit is your learned means to get there. If I come home and go straight for something to eat, even though I’m not hungry, then what am I doing? For me, I think I’m transitioning from a busy work day, and long hectic commute home, to a more relaxing evening. After practically rushing around from the moment I wake up in the morning, by the time I get home, I’m ready to slow down.

Disrupt the behavior

So how else can I get there? What else can I do, to help myself transition to a more relaxed mode, without needlessly, and mindlessly, putting food into my mouth? I need to disrupt that automatic behavior. I need to do something else, on purpose, that prevents me from getting sucked into auto-pilot, and going straight for the pantry.  I’m working on this as I write, and I think I have something. What if instead of going to the pantry, I went upstairs sat still for 5 minutes?  It would probably do an even better job of helping me to transition, and it would certainly distract me from staring into the pantry.

Set yourself up for success

Ok, so now what do I do?  I really just need to start! I already have the headspace app installed on my phone.  I’m going to move it to my home screen right now, and put it where Instagram is currently.  That way, whenever I look at my phone it’s going to be there staring at me, and I’ll be constantly reminded of the new habit that I’m trying to form.  OK, it’s there!  Next, I’m going to tell my wife.  I don’t want to surprise her tomorrow afternoon, I don’t want her to wonder what I’m doing upstairs, and I do want her to be able to help me.  She can serve as my backup disrupter.  If she sees me heading to the pantry, she can ask if I’ve meditated yet.

Practice, practice, practice

Now all I have to do it practice. How easy is that? Not very…  Practicing is actually the most difficult part of creating a new habit.  Remember, now is when I’m learning.  I’m going to be going against those hardwired connections in my brain.  And, I’m going to be trying to build new ones.  It’s going to take time, potentially a lot of time, and while I’m doing that it’s going to take a lot of effort.  My old habit of going to the pantry isn’t going to be broken easily, and my new act of meditating isn’t going to be a habit for at least a few months.  Until then, I’m going to be driving on effort.  Making an investment in myself, putting in work, forcing something that feels unnatural, with the purpose of improving my life.

I’m convinced that it’s going to be totally worth it.  So, my effort starts tomorrow.  What habits are you going to start working on?

References

Follow-up

Dr. Laurie Marbas and I discussed all of this in much more detail on her How To Health Podcast. Laurie really has a lot to add on these topics, and if you want to dig a little deeper I highly recommend that you check it out. You can watch or listen at the links below.

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