The power of a habit is enormous. It can propel you forward incredibly or it can block any change for the better, depending on whether it as a good or a bad habit.
The one habit that counts the most, I think, is not a specific thing that you do, but rather the way in which you respond to the world. Some of it is a part of your temperament, of course. You can’t do much about the temperament you were born with. But a great part of the way you react is actually a habit, an acquired pattern of behavior, that was shaped by your past experiences.
If, for whatever reason, you were conditioned to react strongly to certain people or situations in the past, you may have to deal with a lot of stress throughout your entire life, whenever you encounter similar situations. Your acquired pattern of behavior will make you overreact even to a normal, everyday situation, because some tiny aspect of it is perhaps similar to the original bad situation and therefore triggers the same reaction.
If this becomes your primary mode of living, it can make your life full of stress, mess up your relationships and health, and decrease your productivity. Going on vacations or becoming a recluse on a desert island will only partially and temporarily solve some of the problems. Sometimes running away is necessary, but you will have to return eventually or some other problem will pop in.
The only permanent way of solving the problem is to unwire the triggers and the learned response. One of the best ways you can do this is to pay attention to your breathing whenever you detect your old unwanted patterns to emerge. Just put your attention on your breath and observe it. If this doesn’t help, then go a step further and intentionally make your breathing deeper and slower and also make sure you inhale and exhale at a regular pace. This will automatically calm you down and divert your attention away from the problematic situation.
However, you will not want to divert your attention away unless you first – at least to some extent – accept the present moment and the situation at hand, because otherwise you will have a feeling that by not reacting the usual way, you are capitulating and letting the other person take advantage of you. Of course, you are not. All you are doing is breaking the chain of automated reaction that you habituated in the past. By focusing your attention on your breathing for a few seconds you are allowing yourself some time before you can intentionally respond to the situation. It may be that the situation demands a fierce response, but you will do it on purpose, and not because you are reacting blindly. (Some emergency situations may be exempt from what I just described).
Of course, this is easier said than done. Old habits are really, really persistent, and before you have had a chance to think about it you are already reacting. Therefore, I have chosen my own personal mantra (inspired by Eckhart Tolle) that I repeat over and over again, and it helps me remind myself about what needs to be done:
Breathe. Allow this moment to be
I have written this on a piece of paper and I usually carry it in my pocket, looking at it many times a day, so that I will really internalize it. When some difficult situation presents itself I try to repeat this mantra in my mind and then actually live it. By allowing the present moment to be as it is (and not as I wish it would have been) I undermine the need to react immediately, which gives me some time to focus on my breathing instead, and this enables me to respond to the situation calmly.
It doesn’t always work, but then again I only recently put this into practice. Years of habitual agitated reactions to certain situations, people and events cannot be changed overnight. I stay optimistic that in a year or so, my new mantra will fully become part of my life, and I won’t even have to think about it anymore.
We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act but a habit.
– Will Durant’s summation of Aristotle’s ideas
Habit: an acquired pattern of behavior that often occurs automatically.
We are all on autopilot most of the time. Anyone who has ever learned how to drive a car knows that at first it was very difficult, because you had to observe and think about so many things at the same time and coordinate your actions accordingly. It felt like you may never master driving. But after some practice, things got easier as you didn’t have to think so much anymore. Your nervous system learned new motions that have been repeated over and over again and connected them together, so that when you, for example, want to turn left, you don’t have to think about all the details – you do it on autopilot, automatically. When you have really mastered driving, you can even be thinking about some completely different subject and don’t register anything you are doing, but your driving is completely safe anyways. Only when something unusual happens in front of you, does your attention come back to the road.
We can do many, many things that we don’t need to think about consciously. We can be walking on a street and at the same time talking with someone on our mobile phone. Not a single time in between, we think about how to move our legs. However, walking is a task that demands very complicated and coordinated muscle moves that first had to be learned. As I read somewhere, most babies need about 1000 hours of practice from the time they pull themselves upright to the time they can walk alone.
We do not have the capacity to think about everything consciously. Our brains can only think about a few things simultaneously. Therefore it is crucial that we have the ability to develop habits that we can do automatically, without thinking about how to do it consciously (so, we can be focused on other things). Once we learn something and it becomes a habit (like walking and driving) it usually stays with us forever. However, this is a double-edged sword, as habits can be either good or bad, and they are very difficult to change.
Intense thinking takes time and energy. When you study for your exams you have to have breaks in between, because mental work is indeed work. You get tired from it. We can say furthermore that we only have a limited amount of willpower (unwavering strength of will to carry out our wishes), because conscious decision-making process also takes time and burns energy, so it is neither practical nor possible to be making decisions about everything. Most of our life is therefore governed by our habits, which are difficult to resist. This is why, it is important to keep cultivating good habits and avoid bad habits from developing.
You can change your life by changing you habits. In the long term, this is the only way, really. You can change your life for a day by sheer willpower, but you cannot sustain that kind of change, unless it becomes a habit, as old patterns of behavior will come back the next day. You can overcome old patterns by focusing your willpower to where it counts the most: to developing new, better habits. If you would dedicate some time every day to developing good habits, then your life would become significantly better pretty soon.