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Are you fighting with yourself to change your habits?

By G. Balasubramanian

“I am looking for a change” Edwin was talking to his friend regarding his job. “What happened? Aren’t you happy with your job, any problems?” asked Peter. “Well Peter, there is no problem with my job or the company. Nor do I have any complaints about the status or the pay. ‘The only concern is that the company wants me to be back at the office regularly from next month. And having worked from home for the last two years and more, my mind is set and to change the habits is going to be difficult. I would prefer a job where I can work from home.” Edwin is not the only person with this mind set. He has other friends too. Habits tend to provide a structure to our mental approaches, and we feel good about them. You tend to set all your activities to this mindset and moving away from that creates certain amount of stress; some feel that their life would crumble like a pack of cards. "By and large, structure is important since it gives us a sense of rhythm in our lives," says Dr. Orme, a psychologist from Houston. "We don't do well with a lot of uncertainty, and we like to feel a sense of control.” It is claimed that nearly forty percent of actions we do are not conscious decisions but born out of habits.

“Don’t bite your nail. It is a bad habit” the mother regulating her son; “Don’t shout when you are talking to someone. It is a bad habit.” the teacher advising the student; “When you are in conversation, don’t leave the place without permission” – a life coach training a young adult – one may notice the play of good and bad habits in every field of activity. “Your net worth to the world is usually determined by what remains after your bad habits are subtracted from your good ones,” said Benjamin Franklin

Discussing how habits are formed, the magazine “The world counts” details the following:

Some Interesting facts about Habits

  • Your life is to a large extent the sum of all your habits – good or bad.
  • It’s hard to shake off a habit since it takes an average of 66 days before a new habit takes root in our brain.
  • Habits never truly disappear. They are just overpowered by other habits.

In an article detailing the process of forming and breaking of the habits, it is said “Neuroscientists have traced our habit-making behaviours to a part of the brain called the basal ganglia, which also plays a key role in the development of emotions, memories, and pattern recognition. Decisions, meanwhile, are made in a different part of the brain called the prefrontal cortex. But as soon as a behaviour becomes automatic, the decision-making part of your brain goes into a sleep mode of sorts.” Further, Duhigg points out "In fact, the brain starts working less and less. The brain can almost completely shut down. ... And this is a real advantage because it means you have all this mental activity you can devote to something else.”

The abstract of one of the research papers reports “As the proverbial creatures of habit, people tend to repeat the same behaviours in recurring contexts. This review characterizes habits in terms of their cognitive, motivational, and neurobiological properties. In so doing, we identify three ways that habits interface with deliberate goal pursuit: First, habits form as people pursue goals by repeating the same responses in a given context. Second, as outlined in computational models, habits, and deliberate goal pursuit guide actions synergistically, although habits are the efficient, default mode of response. Third, people tend to infer from the frequency of habit performance that the behaviour must have been intended.”

Habits die hard. It is just not proverbial. The formulation of the habits has indeed a neurobiological background. Bri Flynn writes in her article “The neuroscience of habit formation” published in the Forbes magazine “The brain hardwires everything that we repeatedly do – this is how habits are formed. So, the stories we tell ourselves over and over become default paths, the circuitry the brain naturally activates.”

On most occasions the habits connect us to the pleasure centre of the brain. We tend to feel happy, elated and become addictive. It helps us to remain in the ‘comfort zone’ and provided a mythical sense of security. It sets us on many occasions on an ‘autopilot’ system that we engage with habits even without being effectively conscious of the actions. It could also land us with ‘learned helplessness’ so that we hesitate to move beyond defined horizons of the actions. Blaise Pascal remarked “Habit is a second nature that destroys the first. But what is nature? Why is habit not natural? I am very much afraid that nature itself is only a first habit, just as habit is a second nature.“

Habits could help us to seek perfection. They may help us to improve our self-confidence, skill sets and our approach to the work profile. Aristotle observed “We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act but a habit.”

In a world which is fast changing we are called upon to change, re-engineer, refocus, recentre and recalibrate our mental processes including habits that have been formed earlier. The understanding about ‘neuroplasticity’ of the brain helps us in understanding how neurons facilitate in formation of habits and their marginalization, either through ‘Long term potentiation’ or through ‘long term depression.’ The website ‘Invictus fitness’ narrates in the article “the three-step process to turn a bad habit to good one’ the process of change:

We can take control of the habit loop and develop new habits that come to overpower and override the old ones. The most effective way to modify your habits is to attack the habit loop directly, and to replace an old routine that is associated with a particular cue and reward, with a new routine. This is a known as the golden rule of habit change: you can never truly extinguish bad habits. Rather, to change a habit, you must keep the old cue, and deliver the old reward, but insert a new routine. (Duhigg). On a lighter note, the famous Scottish author Samuel Johnson remarks “The chains of habit are too weak to be felt until they are too strong to be broken.

Next time if anyone tells you that it is difficult to change habits because they are hard wired, please give them a bit of hope that the brain can rewire itself if one would be willing to try! Neuroplasticity of the brain facilitates our learning continuously!

I think a deep understanding on forming and re-engineering of habits is an essential part of any pedagogical process or training.