Today I want to explore what habits are and how they get created. Each of us have things we do in our lives that we know aren’t good for us and are holding us back. We call these habits. There can be good habits and bad habits. Bad habits for some might be smoking or drinking or overeating or anger or swearing – it could be any number of things.
You hear people say, “That’s just the way I am. I was just born that way.” My response to that is – Baloney!
Yes, you were born with certain gifts and talents. But I don’t believe that an all-wise and loving God would implant in us destructive behaviors. Those behaviors or habits were learned after we came to this earth. The package we were born with did not include those items. Most of our habits, behaviors and personality traits were learned and I believe that anything that can be learned can be unlearned or changed.
What are habits?
According to the American Heritage Dictionary, a “habit” is described as a “constant, often unconscious inclination to perform an act, acquired through its frequent repetition.” So basically a habit is any action we perform so often that it become almost involuntary.
A habit is just your brain’s way of accomplishing a task easier or more efficiently. Once it learns a pattern or a habit, it can then repeat that action or behavior again with much less effort. It’s like a computer program which is simply a set of instructions for the computer to perform. A habit is just a set of instructions that your brain is given to do and then it goes on its merry way and does it. You don’t have to do much about it.
How are habits created?
These habits, behaviors and personality traits you possess are just a set of neurological relationships or pathways that have been created over a period of time. It’s like a trail in the wilderness. The first time over the trail you can scarcely see anything – a few footprints, a few bent blades of grass. But as you walk that trail again and again it becomes well worn. Every time you pass that way it becomes easier. After a while you don’t even have to think about it. That’s the simple explanation of how habits are created.
Let’s explore deeper how these habits are created.
Conditioned Response – Pavlov’s Dogs
We’ve all heard the story of how Ivan Pavlov trained his dogs to salivate at the ring of a bell. Every day, just before his dogs were given their food, he would ring a bell. The dogs made the connection in their minds that when a bell rang it was time to eat. It came to the point where he did this so often that when he rang a bell the dogs would begin to salivate even when no food was presented because they anticipated food was coming. It was a conditioned response. A habit.
Throughout our lives we have created thousands of conditioned responses in our minds. That’s how we live our lives and that’s how we were designed to be. When a certain condition is met, your brain responds in a certain way. That response was programmed into your mind. You weren’t born that way. Yes, there are some things you were born with. You came with some pre-set programs. But most of our behaviors and actions that we do now in our lives have been programmed into us. When a bell rings, we salivate.
Habits are neither good nor bad
These habits can be very useful for us in many ways but can also be very destructive in other ways. Habits are neither good nor bad in the same way that fire is neither good nor bad. A warm fire can keep you alive or a fire can burn down your house. A habit can make many daily tasks automatic and free your mind of the complex details of performing them. But a habit can also have a vise grip on your mind, causing you to perform destructive behaviors repeatedly.
Learning is the creation of habits
Sometimes we think learning is when you sit in a classroom and you learn facts and figures and information. That is part of learning. However, the real learning occurs in your physiological system, deep down in your nervous system.
You can attempt to teach someone how to swing a golf club in a classroom. You can show them pictures of it. You can diagram it on the blackboard and tell them everything there is to know about swinging a golf club. Your student can know everything about swinging a golf club but they still have not learned how to swing a golf club until they take that club in their hands and swing it over and over again. Only then is it programmed into their body, their mind, their nervous system.
Then, one day when this person is on the golf course and he picks up a golf club, his brain says, “Okay, run the ‘swing-the-golf-club’ program.” It brings back into his mind, into his memory, the software that has been programmed into his mind and he runs it. Now it’s not always perfect. You don’t run it exactly the same every time – but that’s what learning is about. That’s how we acquire these habits that we do every day. It’s a way of saving your brain from having to think about every little thing.
Sandwich Bag Example
Some time ago I had a simple little program in my brain that had to do with my kitchen at home. I used to get up every morning, eat breakfast, and make my lunch. At that time I liked to bring my lunch to work. For many years the sandwich bags had been in the second drawer next to the refrigerator. They had always been there and every time I made my lunch or needed a sandwich bag I would automatically reach for that second drawer.
One day my wife decided to reorganize the kitchen. When I went to reach for the sandwich bags I opened the drawer and there were a bunch of dish towels and I had to ask her, “Where are the sandwich bags?” She directed me to the third drawer, not the second drawer. So I got the sandwich bags out of the third drawer and made my lunch.
The next day I went to make my lunch. I reached automatically, without even thinking, for the second drawer. I was running my “make-my-lunch” program and my “make-my-lunch” program told me that when it’s time to get a sandwich bag to reach for the second drawer. I reached for the second drawer and there were no sandwich bags, only dish towels. I mentally berated myself for my stupidity and opened the third drawer, got a sandwich bag and made my lunch.
The next day I opened the second drawer for a sandwich bag, and did the exact same thing. This drawer has been changed now for several years and I still find myself from time to time automatically reaching for the second drawer when I need a sandwich bag. I have to stop myself and mentally tell myself to reach for the third drawer.
So why is it so hard for me to change that behavior? Well, first of all, I created that program long ago in my mind – the “Make-My-Lunch” program. The trigger is simple. It is simply the conscious thought that I need to make my lunch. The response is to reach down to the second drawer and grab a sandwich bag – I do this without even thinking! It’s programmed in. And when you’ve done that for years and years that program becomes stronger in your brain. Unlike a computer, your brain has the ability to strengthen a program and make it more powerful each time that it’s used.
Driving Home Example
Okay, another example, and I know all of you have done this. When you drive back and forth to a certain place every day, like your job, and you do it day after day for years, what happens? Do you have to think about how to drive home? Do you have to think about the speed limit? Do you have to think about where it is that you live? No! In fact, you don’t have to think about anything. You can think about something totally different the entire way home and you pull into the driveway and you may not remember anything about your drive home.
When you got in your car, that was the trigger or condition. Your external conditions told you it was time to go home. You looked at the clock. You saw you were getting into the car. You were at work and knew that every time you do that you drive home. So your conscious mind told your sub-conscious mind, “Take me home!” And your sub-conscious mind took over and you began driving home. You didn’t think about shifting gears, you didn’t think about anything. Your sub-conscious mind took over and it drove you home.
That’s why it’s so hard sometimes to break out of that pattern. You know what I’m talking about. My wife would call me at work and ask me to stop and pick up a gallon of milk on the way home. I say “sure” and when the time comes for me to come home I jump in my car and before I know it I’m home, with no milk! Then I think, “You idiot, you totally forgot the milk.” I let my program take over and off I went with my mind wandering in a totally different direction.
Driving Stick Shift Example
When you drove a car the very first time with a stick shift, how difficult was it? Remember grinding the gears, putting in the clutch, thinking “where’s the brake?” and then “oh my gosh, you mean I have to think about steering at the same time!” It was terrible! You thought, “How am I ever going to learn this?”
And now, after you’ve learned to drive, you jump in the car and start driving and you don’t even have to think about it. Why? Because it’s all programmed into you. You just run that program and you don’t have to think about it any more. Now your conscious mind is freed up to think about other things. You can be preparing a speech in your mind while you’re driving home. You can be thinking about your vacation two weeks ago. Your mind can be doing something totally different and your subconscious mind has taken over and is driving you home.
We are also programmed to feel emotions
I’ve talked about behaviors, about programs that get created in your mind that really have to do with actions. But aren’t we also programming our minds to feel certain emotions – not just actions but feelings?
For example, is there a certain food that you dislike very very much? Think about that for a moment. Is there a food that you really dislike? Now think about that food and why is it that you dislike it. Other people, perfectly normal people, happen to like that food. Why? Why do they like it and you don’t? Why is it revolting to you?
More likely than not there was some time in your past when you had an experience with that food and that experience was not a good experience. Have you ever gotten sick and vomited up your dinner? You know, maybe you had, let’s be really grotesque here, macaroni and cheese with hot dogs in it and you got very sick. Your face turned green. You vomited it up all over your bed at night as a kid. Those slimy hot dogs covered with macaroni and cheese were all over you face and your pajamas and your bed. Not a very pleasant experience at all!
That is how you create a program very fast. You don’t have to do it over and over again because of the intense emotion you’re experiencing at the time. That is the fast path to programming your mind. It’s with emotion – intense emotion.
Another example of programming your mind is with music. You may recall a time when you were driving along in your car and you were listening to the radio. A song comes on and all of a sudden you are flooded with wonderful feelings. It takes you right back to a certain time in your life when you were with that certain special someone. It could have been twenty-five years ago and you’re right back to where you were. That song – you love that song because of the way it makes you feel. It may not even be a very good song but it doesn’t matter. It’s what it makes you feel and experience that makes it such a special song. Whenever you hear that song it immediately sends you back to that wonderful time in your life.
Why is it that that song does that to you? How did it get programmed into your mind? Again, it’s the same thing. You were in a deep, powerful, emotional state when that song got programmed into your mind. You were in love. You were feeling wonderful feelings and that song came on the radio and you were with that special someone and it got embedded into your mind and linked up with that experience. That’s how your mind can be programmed in one step.
Smell – Cattle Yard Example
What about smell? Smell is another trigger. It is one of the most powerful triggers that we have of past experiences and emotions.
I have an example in my own life and it’s kind of strange. You know we smell certain smells and some are pleasant to us and some are not. We smell bread baking and it brings us back to when we were a kid at grandma’s house and so we love the smell of baking bread. It brings up back to happy times, good memories, Thanksgiving, etc. So a smell can be very pleasant to us.
I happen to have a memory or a program in my mind that is very unusual. Have you ever driven past a cattle yard? You know, you’ve been out in the country for a drive and you go past a cattle yard where there are hundreds of cattle in big pens and you smell that SMELL of the cattle yard as you drive by. It’s powerful. It’s made by cattle dung – piles of it. You drive by and you plug your nose and say, “OOOO, this is disgusting!” You roll up your windows and drive by it as quickly as you can. It’s not a pleasant smell to you.
Well, when I was a kid I lived out in the country. Every day on the way to school and on the way home from school our bus would drive by a large cattle yard. We would smell that pungent smell every time we drove by. Back then it was not a pleasant smell. None of us on the bus liked it. But that period of time in my life was a happy time for me. I had many great experiences during that part of my life. So now, when I drive past a cattle yard and smell that smell, what kind of feelings do you suppose it gives me? Strangely enough I love the smell of cattle yards because it takes me right back to that time in my life when I was 12 years old. So to me it’s a pleasant smell. I like the smell of cattle yards.
Now isn’t that strange? What makes a smell good or bad? What makes food taste good or bad?
You are the programmer of your mind
What I’m trying to get at here is this: there are conditions in your life that trigger certain responses. Some of your responses are behavior responses and some of your responses are emotional responses. Those were all created by you. Every day you are creating them. You create good programs and you create bad programs. You are the programmer!
It stands to reason that if you are the programmer of your habits and behaviors then the way you are is NOT just the way you are and always will be! If you are the programmer then you can control what new programs get created. If you are the programmer then you can erase and re-write old programs. Instead of allowing programs to be created sub-consciously without even knowing about it, you can now be the architect and designer of who you are! The malicious and obstructing belief that the way you are is just the way you are will no longer hold you back. You can put that belief away and move forward with your life. You can create a totally new YOU by reprogramming the software of your mind.
Master Yourself, Master Your Life
Copyright © 2013 Gary N. Larson