A habit is something you can do without thinking; which is why most of us have so many of them.
Not my witty observation, I’m afraid; but nonetheless very true. Modern life is complex, with all sorts of information coming at us, and us needing to make a high number of decisions quickly and at short notice; the more we can cut down on the mental overload by having habits and routines, the more most of us find that helpful and even, to a degree, liberating. (Like, for example, the corporate executives who have multiple versions of the same outfit, so they never have to think about what to wear).
Forming habits – habits of behaviour, of speech, of thought – is part of how we human beings cope with life, and that is not, in itself, a bad thing.
But anyone who’s ever made a new year’s resolution knows how hard it is to change bad habits, or even to establish new good ones. What carries us along very comfortably once it’s established, is not nearly so easy when we’re trying to make it part of the pattern of life.
Wanting to do better, by itself, seldom makes much difference. Even solemnly committing to do better only gets us so far. Most of us find, within a humbling space of time, that we are, in fact, back in the grip of our bad habit. Because the patterns of thought and behaviour, the neural connections in the brain that feed that habit, are so well-established that they happen without us even having to consciously decide that they should.
Habits change over time, over a process of disrupting the thought and behaviour patterns of the habit and replacing them with new ones.
The tradition I belong to gives us some pointers for what to look for in our own process of disrupting bad habits.
Where am I suffering? How does that suffering relate in any way to my own choices? (Note: not all suffering is the consequence of our own personal choices!) Should I pay attention and let it help me recognise where I need to change?
What do I need to put in place to disrupt this habit? Some people work well with accountability partners; others physically change their surroundings, others change their daily or weekly routine; it’s not just about stopping the old thing but about allowing positive input into something new, as well. But this is a very individual thing, and each of us needs to work out what will be most helpful for us.
And finally, where’s the joy? I might be a work in progress, but there’s plenty to celebrate, in how I got to this point, and in the goodness I can trust is still to come. What do I have to celebrate? How might I actually allow myself to enjoy that?
That last part isn’t an afterthought, by the way. Allowing ourselves to give thanks and celebrate – rather than always being focussed on what is bad and wrong – also helps sustain us on the way.