The Wisdom of Repetition
We are our habits
The way you portray yourself – unless you make a habit of dissembling (sorry, acting) – is pretty much a basket of your current set of habits. And your thought processes too, are likely to be largely habitual. You eat at your favourite restaurants, drive the same route to work or the shops and watch the same TV programmes each week.
Yes, I know that you are more than that. But to a first approximation, this is a reasonable characterisation of many of us.
Some of your habits are smart and some may even be wise, for the moment. But nothing that happens automatically can be truly wise, in all circumstances.
Bad Habits too?
If you are smart, I suspect that this is due to an array of helpful habits that you have acquired over the years. Habits like courtesy, punctuality, and diligence drive success. But you may also have gathered a few bad habits too. Those, you would be wise to fix.
Far more interesting are the habits that served you well once – but no longer do.
The Trouble with Habits
The trouble with habits is that they are hard to shed. They reflect patterns of brain activity in important areas of the brain – predominantly the basal ganglia. Every time we repeat a habit, these patterns are strengthened and, to accompany this, we get a feeling of well-being from the brain’s reward centre.
Not only do habits get stronger with time, but it takes an act of will to overcome them, and do something else. This is effortful – the prefrontal cortex that plans new actions draws more energy in functioning. And it gets worse: doing something new also triggers the fear response from your amygdala, urging you to draw back from the change.
The Good News
There is some good news though. You can re-programme your basal ganglia to entrench new habits, in a two stage process.
- Stage 1 is Mindfulness
Notice the triggering events and start to pay attention to your urge towards your habitual behaviour. Now focus on the new thoughts and behaviours that you want to replace that habit with.
- Stage 2 is Repetition
Make a change and notice what you have done. You may not be wholly successful in shifting the habit, but the key is to fixate on the extent of your success, rather than allow yourself to be blinkered by your failing. Repeat this process and gradually the new habit starts to supplant the old one.
Stage 1 is what makes the process easy. Rather than over-riding the old habit, you are first concentrating on adding a new one: far less demanding. This new habit is also an unthreatening one: noticing. Stage 2 is what makes the process work. Repetition allows you to change not only your habits, but therefore, who you appear to be and, maybe, who you actually are.
So, choose wisely.