How to Break Old Habits
What guides our habitual behaviors?
How do we get set in our ways?
When reflecting on my habit energies, those repeated tendencies that seem to pop up over and over again, I often ask myself: do I even enjoy what I’m doing?
Do I actually like drinking heavily in crowded bars, inhaling three morning cups of coffee, or binge watching Netflix?
My consistent answer has been both yes and no.
I like the comfort of it all. When you do something often enough, you know exactly you'll get out of it. It’s certain, and that certainty is reassuring. Even when the behavior hurts you, even when it wastes money, even when it makes you feel ill. It feels like what you're supposed to do. What you've always done.
Secondly, I have so many memories backing my habit energies. So much emotional connection, experience, association, and context to draw from. I know their nuances. I know their complexity. Memories of drinking those morning coffees at sunrise with my puppy on my lap, memories of fumbling around with the french press at work after a late night in the library. These populate my conscious mind, and for that alone, I gravitate towards my habits.
But when I'm able to step back, questions arise. I begin to ask, am I still enjoying these habits. Am I repeating them out of love or ease. Do I like them, or have I simply associated so many memories with them that I'm no longer making new judgements?
Memories of bars evoke a nostalgia that overpowers my perception. Binge watching online shows pulls me back to the freedom of my younger days, when I had fewer other obligations and interests. But these behaviors are no longer me. They're just known, easy, and familiar.
You can try for yourself…
Do I like _______________, or is it just easy and familiar?
Regardless of their effects, we gravitate towards what we've done a million times before.
One way to observe this phenomena, is by thinking of all the components that go into each of our memories. Take bars for example. Ten years ago, I may have been out with friends, working through an ending relationship, feeling closely connected to my small-town community, and transitioning into a new chapter of life. Take away those friends and that community. Make that relationship a distant memory and fast-forward several life chapters. Now the bar is all that remains. Do I still love it? Is it still an experience that serves me?
Perhaps, but perhaps not.
Now let's think about the opposite type of experience. Our non-habits. The things that we don't have a million memories of. The things that are uncomfortable and unfamiliar. How do we feel about them?
Do I like death metal? Do I enjoy playing chess with the old men who sit in the park by my apartment? Or leading a book club at my public library? I suspect not. These experiences are foreign to me. I have no positive memories associated with them. No memories at all. I wasn’t listening to death metal with my close friends, or as my relationships ended, or as I felt connected to my community. To me, these activities are at best mysterious, and at worst, terrifying. How could they be chosen over the known and easy.
Without explicit effort and forethought, they cannot. We need to pull ourselves out of the trap of the known so that these joys do not remain undiscovered.
We need to unlock this hidden potential.
The unconventional and the unusual are signs that point the way around the cement wall of habit that we like to bang our heads against. We must step back to see them, and if we're lucky, follow their path forward.