Turn off the alarm. Roll out of bed. Hop in the shower. Eat breakfast. Get ready for work.
Have you ever stopped to think about how much of what you do each day, from the time you wake up to the time you go to bed, is exactly the same as you did the day before? Probably not: most people go through their daily routine without so much as a second thought.
That’s because doing the same thing over and over again creates new neuro-pathways in your brain. The more you do it, the stronger these neuro-pathways grow, until eventually they become a shortcut to your brain that bypasses your normal neural routing altogether. As a result, sticking to a routine no longer takes the same amount of time or brainpower that you’d require to process unfamiliar information and then coordinate a response. You simply act automatically.
Get in the habit
Recurrent, almost unconscious patterns of behavior acquired through constant repetition are known as auto-responses or, colloquially, habits. Human beings are often described as creatures of habit — and with good reason. According to Ann Graybiel, a professor of brain and cognitive sciences at MIT, “We live mostly by habit.”
But while practice makes perfect in the case of superstar athletes and performers, it also perpetuates less-than-perfect behaviors. These can be anything from spending your evenings parked on the couch with a bag of potato chips to not washing your hands after using the bathroom to thinking negative thoughts that provoke stress, anxiety, and depression. In order to shed unhealthy habits you may be doing by rote, you have to develop new auto-responses through methodical repetition. Here’s a five-step process that will help you retrain your brain:
1. Identify the habit you’d like to change or create. If your goal is to get rid of an existing “bad” habit, be sure to identify the behavior with which you wish to replace it. Be very specific. “I want to get fit” is not a new habit. “I will go for a walk on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Thursdays from 6 to 8 p.m. instead of watching TV” is far more inherently habit-forming.
2. Find your willpower. Write down all the things that are motivating you to want to develop your new habit. Everyone has their own unique reasons: to become the best at what they do, to live longer, or to feel better. Look at how this new habit will benefit you in various areas of your life, ranging from your relationship with your family to your career to your mental and physical health. The more thorough you are in doing this exercise, the easier it will be for you to follow through in reality. Keep brainstorming until you can’t imagine life without this new behavior.
3. Examine the consequences. Write down all the ways that your life will be negatively affected if you don’t change your habits. Again, consider all areas of your life.
4. Commit to sticking to your new habit for at least three weeks. That’s the minimum amount of time that it takes to form a new habit, based upon the latest research. Examine the lists you’ve made in the previous two steps and add to them daily to help sustain your drive to change. As Zig Ziglar, the renowned self-help author and speaker, liked to point out: “People often say that motivation doesn’t last. Well, neither does bathing: that’s why we recommend it daily.”
5. Practice, practice, practice. Say you want to stop being so negative: then push yourself to respond positively to each setback you encounter. If it’s pouring rain; tell yourself that’s good for crops. Or if someone veers in front of you on the freeway, thank your lucky stars that you’re well clear of the speed demon. This will no doubt feel forced at first. But if you keep at it, you can ultimately reprogram your brain to work the way you want it to work. Give it a try.
Creating a new habit isn’t easy, which is why people talk about “force of habit.” But if you have a clear and pressing reason to change and keep reminding yourself of what that reason is, then developing the habits you want to develop will become second nature.
This information was provided by Mental Health Pros.