Habits – Part I©
So much has been written by so many regarding the topic of “Habits.” We all have a great deal of experience with them, so why spend the time writing (or especially reading!) yet one more essay on the subject? Well, my Guides insisted that I consider it, and I actually found the time well-spent. In that spirit, I’ll try to make your reading about habits at least somewhat worthwhile.
I think that a major part of the lack of interest in habits is that they are so pervasive and so commonplace; we don’t really give them much more than passing attention—let alone, interest. It is somewhat ironic to devote conscious attention to what are, after all, largely unconscious behaviors. But that is precisely why it is important to understand the nature of our habits in order to make better use of them for our own improvement.
• “It is not your passing thoughts or brilliant ideas so much as your plain everyday habits that control your life.” ~ Paramhansa Yogananda (1893–1952; Indian yogi and spiritual teacher; Man’s Eternal Quest)
Psychologists tell us that human cognition and decision activities lie on a continuum from “controlled information processing” to “automatic information processing.” In controlled information processing, thinking is conscious, intentional, voluntary, effortful, and constrained by the attentional resources available. It is required to a greater extent when the decision is complex, resources are scarce, the decision maker is tired or lacks information, and when the consequences of error are relatively severe. Required effort, in particular, is an important reason why people often prefer to avoid controlled processes. In short, controlled information processing is more “work” and requires people to “get out of the comfort zone” in order to perform a task or make a decision.
Automatic information processing, on the other hand, does not require us to pay much, if any, attention, nor do we have to deliberately put in much effort to engage automatic processes. When the task or decision is relatively simple, it does not require great human ability or attention, and the consequences of error are minimal, automatic processes can be quite efficient and effective. In short, automatic processing occurs without having to give much thought to it. This is the domain of habits, those well-practiced but relatively unconscious behaviors (for example, walking, tying your shoes, riding a bicycle, assembly-line work, etc.).
• “A habit is something you can do without thinking—which is why most of us have so many of them.” ~|Frank A. Clark (1911-1991; syndicated American newspaper cartoonist)
Neither controlled nor automatic processing is “better” or “worse”; it all depends on the task, the situation, and the individual. For example, I don’t need a PhD to tie my shoes, but several years ago I had a “mini stroke” and discovered that my brain could not consciously direct my fingers to tie my shoes. The task was simple, highly practiced, and the consequences of error quite low. Regardless, I could only tie my shoes with considerable effort as I gradually recovered from the event. It was all very frustrating at the time, but I gained a new respect for the lowly “habit.” I don’t want to spend my time thinking about how to tie my shoes!
In short, habits are very functional in human affairs … until they are not. General rules (logic) can be applied, but it ultimately boils down to a good “fit” between the demands of a particular task and a given individual’s capacity to perform it given the attentional resources both required and available.
• “Habit is either the best of servants or the worst of masters.” ~ Nathaniel Emmons (1745-1840; American Congregational minister)
So, what is the problem? Simply this: while much of life can be effectively managed by habitual behavior, any new or (especially) complex task requires that we wake up, pay attention, and focus our mental resources on the task at hand. As a passenger, I don’t care how many thousands of hours of flying time the pilot of the jet airliner has if she/he is not paying full attention to flying the plane during the entire trip!
Fortunately, most of life is not about piloting large airliners. But life is about learning to take the opportunities we encounter every day to grow into a better version of ourselves. Believe me, that is a much more complex task than piloting a jetliner. And the consequences of error? That’s a hard one to measure, but think of it this way: How many lifetimes have you been trying to learn the same lessons, balance the same karma, and heal trapped energy in your soul memory? A crashed airliner may kill a few dozen or even a few hundred people, but you (and every one of us!) have spent many thousands of lifetimes trying to “get it right.” The fact that you and I are still here on this earth plane attests to the fact that the tasks of living (the processes of soul evolution) are very complex and the consequences of failure to learn the lessons are often quite severe. In short, we really should be paying much more conscious attention to what we are doing than is typically the case. But that is a choice!
There is a name for that choice—Conscious Living. Remember, our life choices in past lives (as well as in the current life) have created the situations in which we now find ourselves—including our current habits. In short, Conscious Living is a form of controlled information processing as a strategy and means for raising your vibration as well as creating the life you desire. Constructive habits play a major role in this strategy.
• “How many people are trapped in their everyday habits: part numb, part frightened, part indifferent. To have a better life we must keep choosing how we’re living.” ~ Albert Einstein (1879-1955; German-born American physicist, 1921 Physics Nobel Prize)
The question is not whether we have habits but which habits serve us constructively on our soul journey. How do you tell? Easy. If what you are doing makes you feel good or (especially) “uplifted,” then continue doing it. (Note: This does not include caffeine, sugar, alcohol, or other mood-altering drugs!) If what you are doing does not feel uplifting, then it’s time for a change! It’s as simple as that.
So, if habits occur without thinking, how do we know what is habitual and what is not? One way is to take notes, keep a diary. Keep track of whatever behaviors or situations you would like to change. This can be a powerful technique for making changes to habits, relationships or situations. The first step to making a change is to want to make the change, but that can only occur after we become aware of the need for doing so. The second step is to understand where you are now. It’s the only way to plot a course between where you are now and where you want to be. With notes in hand, you can determine exactly what it is about your current situation that you need to change and what triggers are currently causing things to work the “wrong” way. Then you can begin to work on those things.
• “Every time you are tempted to react in the same old way, ask if you want to be a prisoner of the past or a pioneer of the future.” ~ Deepak Chopra (1946-; Indian-American physician & author)
Begin the process by consciously paying attention to how you feel and make a note of the situation, triggers, etc. related to your feelings. Try this for 30 days and bring your notes to class (next month’s newsletter) when we’ll discuss ways to begin changing habits and why changing them is so difficult. Until then, keep in mind the following:
• “We first make our habits, and then our habits make us.” ~ John Dryden (1631-1700; English dramatist & poet)
• “Nothing is more powerful than habit.” ~ Publius Ovidius Naso Ovid (43 BCE-c.17 CE; Roman poet)
Have a great month!