According to research, 40% of people’s daily routines are habitual. Built over a lifetime of repetition, these habits seem to occur almost on their own.
Wiping your shoes on the mat; drinking coffee in the morning; having a cigarette while talking on the phone. Little things, like which sock you put on first, to locking your car doors, are habitual traits that require no conscious effort.
At the American Psychological Association’s 122nd Annual Convention, Wendy Wood gave an in-depth explanation about how habitual patterns work, as well as how to break them. She gives insight into why many diet fads and self-help books don’t work, as well as measures people take to make positive changes from old habits.
While habitual behaviors may put much of a person’s activities on autopilot, the opposite action is to be intentional. This is the key to undoing unwanted habits.
Intentional behavior requires the brain to be thoughtful and engaged. As it sounds, actions are deliberate, usually with a specific goal in mind. Things like deciding what to make for dinner, choosing which movie to watch at the theater or buying a new pair of pants, are all intentional types of behavior.
Intentional behavior requires conscious effort and acknowledgement. Usually there is an outcome to achieve, requiring intentional actions to reach it. Habitual behavior requires no such goals. Therefore, signing your name on a document is intentional, whereas how you form your signature is habitual.
Understanding these distinct elements in thought process and behavior explains why many self-help programs don’t have lasting effects. They address the engaged part of the mind, the part that has the goal to change something.
Unfortunately, while they can show you all the steps and logical ways to reach the goal, the habitual part of the mind tends to dominate in the course of daily activities. This can inevitably lead to self-sabotage.
Therefore, a conscious effort needs to be made, not just to reach the goal, but also to eliminate the habits preventing the goal. The intentional mind needs cues and triggers to remind itself of the goal.
For example, if the goal is to stop eating cookies, but the rest of the family still wants them, place the cookies in a high cupboard instead of the cookie jar. Your intentional mind will take care of this when you are pumped up about reaching your goal.
However, eventually your habitual mind will take over, but upon reaching into the cookie jar, will find it empty. This disruption triggers your intentional self, reminding you where the cookies are, and more importantly, why.
The secret is to be intentional much more of the time. Free resources such as the iNLP Center’s 5-Day Willpower Boot Camp can help considerably.
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