The human brain learns habits, that is patterns of behavior, throughout a lifetime. A great many of those habits are useful and worthwhile. Who would want to have to re-think the matter of getting dressed in the morning each and every day?
And then, there are those patterns of behavior that are not so useful. For example, do you know anyone whose eating is triggered by sensations of boredom, or who procrastinates important tasks, much to his or her later sorrow?
If you ask people who behave in those ways if they could do something else, typically the answer will be something like, “It’s just what I do” or “I know better, but I can’t seem to make myself do anything else”, or “When I’m in the situation the consequences just don’t seem to matter. It’s later that I give myself hell for doing it AGAIN”.
We all know just how easy it can be to change a habit, and just how hard it can be to change a habit. Moving from one house to another means adjusting thousands of habits, where we sleep, the stores that we shop at, and the route that we drive home from work are all different. All those habits change in the blink of an eye.
Yet, there are those pesky habits that seem to cling on no matter what: that snack after work, the credit card spending, waiting until the last moment to get something done. Will power doesn’t seem to work to overpower those habits for very long.
The good news is that our brain is always fooling us about time. It’s always later than we think. To clarify, here’s a passage from Training Trances, by John Overdurf and Julie Silverthorn.
In a series of ingenious experiments (Benjamin Libet) demonstrated that conscious awareness occurs only about a half-second (500 milliseconds) after the time a stimulus is introduced. This makes sense in that it takes time to develop the electrical activity which eventually results in conscious awareness. Here’s the interesting twist. Even though a half-second elapses from a time a stimulus is introduced to the time we are conscious of it, it appears to us as if no delay in awareness has occurred, and we are accurate at identifying the time and the stimulus. We make a subjective referral back in time….
And, why is it good news that there is a little lag time between a stimulus, its subjective interpretation and a response? Simply put: in that split second we can consciously choose to interrupt our normal (habitual) response.
One of the most highly respected hypnotherapists of our time, Dave Dobson, teaches a simple technique to interrupt an unsatisfactory habitual response. It’s as simple as a sigh. Have you ever thought about the purpose of sighing? Animals and humans both can be observed to sigh on occasion, and the value of a sigh is simply to release pent up emotions. A sigh briefly interrupts the emotions of the moment.
So far so good. Yet there’s more to Dobson’s wisdom. A key to asserting conscious control once we’ve sighed and interrupted that pattern for a moment is, simply to step back and laugh at ourselves. We give the habit power by taking it, and ourselves, seriously. A simple thing to do is imagine how silly it would be to try to fit into our favorite clothes from when we were three years old.
The third step is, immediately after we laugh at ourselves, to simply forget about the old pattern and get busy with some useful task. Wash the dishes. Get some work done. Not only does that further interrupt the pattern, it gives us a new one. How much more productive would we be if we had the habit of interrupting old less than fulfilling habits by accomplishing some useful task?
Don’t accept these ideas on faith. Try them on for yourself and determine just how effective they are for you. And, give yourself enough time to test these ideas thoroughly. A habit that has been repeated 100,000 times might take quite a few interruptions to extinguish completely.