Habits. What they all have in common is that once they are formed, the execution of them is no longer a function of the conscious mind. They require little or no will or effort. Charles Duhigg wrote about them in his book,The Power of Habit. James Clear added a wealth of insight about them in his book, Atomic Habits. Both are excellent resources if you are interested in learning about breaking a harmful habit. This article offers additional insight that neither of these authors address in their books.
Both Clear and Duhigg agree that a habit is something that happens automatically; without the need to choose. The subject of habits is important because, according to John Assaraff, co-author of The Answer, 96 – 98% of what we perceive and do is controlled by what he calls the nonconscious brain. We are not conscious of 96 – 98% of what we perceive and do. Most of what we perceive and do is out of our control.
We choose and are aware of 2 – 4% of what we perceive and do. Changing a habit requires awareness, choice, and will. To change a habit, we need to use some of our very limited conscious bandwidth.
And that, my friends, is why it is so hard to change a habit!
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Imagine playing a game of Jenga which involves stacking wooden blocks to form a tower. When it is your turn, you must carefully pull one block out of the tower and place it on top without toppling the tower. If the tower falls over, you lose. To win, you must pay attention, watching which block your opponents move, noticing how the tower reacts when they do, planning to pull just the right block, and doing so carefully enough to avoid losing the game.
Now, imagine while you are playing the game, you are making gravy on the stove or changing the oil in your car, or reading the instruction manual for your new device. Because your conscious attention is divided; because your bandwidth is shared with two or more areas of focus, your efficiency will be reduced. You are at risk of tumbling the tower, burning the gravy, forgetting to fasten the oil cap, or failing to understand how to use your device. Or if you pay too much attention to the gravy, the oil change, or the instruction manual, you will probably tumble the tower and lose. Something has to give.Register for a free 2-hour Harmful Habits webinar
To successfully change a habit, part of the 2 – 4% that you can consciously perceive will have to be sacrificed. Other areas of your life will suffer because you won’t have the bandwidth for them. This can be managed. But what will you give up? What are you willing to let go of in exchange for the effort that changing a habit requires? Who and what will be impacted by your shift in focus?
For example, when I realized my first marriage was in jeopardy due to my excessive alcohol consumption, I got scared. I didn’t want to lose my family so I decided to devote energy, effort, and attention to changing my drinking habit. Ironically, attention to my family is what suffered. I successfully quit drinking, but to do so, I spent up to 5 hours a day in 12-step meetings.
Twelve years later, after trying and failing for four years, I successfully stopped smoking cigarettes. To do so successfully, I had to learn how to sit with emotional discomfort triggered by the stresses of my life without lighting a cigarette. For most of those four years, I had to choose repeatedly to not light that first cigarette. Time after time I returned to the habit, feeling both relief and disappointment. Each time I failed, I became more convinced I wasn’t capable of making the change.
In both cases, my life improved when I successfully changed the habit. Both excessive alcohol consumption and cigarette smoking were harmful habits. Changing these habits required a conscious commitment followed by deliberate actions. And in both cases, I had to spend some of my limited conscious attention on the effort – especially when I first attempted the change. The commitment, actions, and attention required had an impact on other commitments, other actions, and other areas that I otherwise would have been focused on.
I’ve been sober for over 39 years now and haven’t smoked for 27 years. It hasn’t been hard to be sober or nicotine free for most of that time. My new habit; what is automatic for me now, is to be sober and to be a non-smoker.
As a result of my more recent training and personal development, I now believe there is another way to change a habit. To understand this novel approach, let’s turn our attention to the unconscious mind; the 96 – 98% that happens automatically.
Many therapy models acknowledge the presence and influence of subpersonalities. The idea is that who we are, what we believe and think, how we feel, and what we do are all influenced by specialized parts of ourselves. According to the Internal Family Systems model, each of our parts have their own agendas, their own values, and beliefs.
I realize now that when I drank excessively, I did so because there was a part of me that used drinking as a strategy to help manage my emotions. It was the same with cigarettes.
Getting to know and understand parts of myself and updating them with the facts related to the current conditions of my life has proven to be an effective way to help myself and my clients change harmful habits.
This novel approach still requires a shift in conscious attention. What is unique about this approach is its energy and feel. I still appreciate and advocate for the logical and scientific approaches described by Clear and Duhigg. But rather than just focusing on strategies and processes designed to control ourselves, I believe it is important to enroll the assistance of those parts of ourselves that use harmful habits to try and help us.
By getting to know, understand, and appreciate the parts of ourselves that are trying to help in this way, we can create collaborative relationships with those parts. Gradually, they can become our greatest allies and help us form helpful habits that accurately reflect our current circumstances and desired future life.
For more information about the Internal Family Systems therapy model go to www.IFS-Institute.com.
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To schedule a free 30-minute conversation with me, find a half hour that works for you at www.BillsCalendar.comSchedule a 30-Minute Discovery Conversation
To learn more about a the Self-Led Project, a group coaching program that uses the IFS model, go to www.SelfLedProject.comLearn about the Self-Led Project
Take the Harmful Habits Survey, go to https://docs.google.com/forms/d/e/1FAIpQLSel-SVRZGrrEXNaU-KG8SPXPV2zmrSOz_MksVZ6T8Rc9iqkEA/viewform?usp=sf_linkTake the Harmful Habits Survey