Habits: Our Greatest Ally and Worst Enemy
Updated: Oct 8, 2020
It's been said we are only as good as the tools we have and how well we can use them.
Just because you have a drill doesn't mean you'll be effective at making a hole or tightening a screw.
We have to be able to use the tool well to achieve optimum success and performance.
The same is true with our minds and the habits we allow it to form.
Below is a Competence Matrix showing the path from unconscious incompetence (or bad habits) to unconscious competence (or good habits).
When habits form in the brain, the process of "thinking" is significantly reduced. The brain actually stops fully participating in decision making.
Because the neural pathways are built, the pattern of action simply unfolds automatically.
Bad habits that wreak havoc in our lives and negatively impact those around us can be overwritten with new neurological routines that become automatic - or you become unconsciously competent at being awesome!
In the matrix above you can see how "habits" are associated with unconscious action or performance.
The proverbial "like riding a bike" is apropos here. When you've done something enough times the neural pathways form and a habit emerges, or a standard process your brain creates for performing an action.
So habits, as much as (if not more than) reason and conscious memory, control how we behave.
We don't often remember the experiences or reasons that create habits, but once they are formed in the brain we will respond automatically - often without realizing it.
The goal, then, is to be as deliberate as possible about the why's and ways we behave.
Learning to be self-aware and asking "why did I do that?" or "why did I respond that way?";
and seeking to understand the root cause of your behavior is necessary to move from unconscious incompetence (or a bad habit) through the conscious matrix to unconscious competence (or good habits).
How To Deliberately Create New Habits
The mechanics of a habit work like this:
Stimulus > brain runs automatic program coded to that stimulus and generates an automatic behavioral response > induces desired emotional or physiological reward
There's a mouse under my chair > pull data about your level of comfort about mice and what you believe about them - oh you're afraid of mice, they're nasty, release fear hormones and send signals to muscles to flee and freak out > scream, get on chair, scream, yell for help and don't move until mouse is gone > safety, security.
This pattern can be filled with any and every type of Stimulus > Response > Reward scenario.
Creating a new habit requires a change to the response element of the program.
Here are the basic steps:
Step 1 - become aware of how you respond to stimuli
Step 2 - isolate each stimulus and your associated belief system(s) with that stimulus
Step 3 - critique the belief system(s) and make sure they are warranted (i.e. should you be afraid of mice?)
Step 4 - identify the desired emotional / physiological reward resulting from the current program (response)
Step 5 - insert a new belief
Step 6 - insert a new program
The idea here is the stimulus and reward stay the same: i.e. there's a mouse and I want to be safe from it.
What you change, or work on, is the belief system and program that create the response. Why am I afraid of mice; should I be?
When you become aware of why you respond the way you do, you've entered the conscious incompetence phase. You are conscious of your bad habits.
When you begin altering your belief and response you enter the conscious competence phase. Here you have to expend great mental effort to create new neural pathways and re-write the current response program in your brain.
In other words you have to practice a lot.
You are being conscious of creating new habits.
When your new physical and emotional response becomes automatic you enter the unconscious competence phase, the neural pathways have been reprogrammed, the brain effort reduces, and you have a new good habit.
One of the most powerful forces that drive change is belief.
But there are 2 parts to the belief. You first have to believe that you can make a change; BUT you also have to believe your actions will make a difference.
There are several ways to "generate" belief.
The most powerful are example and support.
"If he can do it, I guess I can too."
"If Sam believes in me, I guess I can believe in me too."
So in your journey of creating better habits find examples of people in a similar situation who have also "done it" – and connect with people who can support you through your transformation.
The brain is powerful. It's the most potent tool we humans have. And the better we get at using and training it, the better results we see in life.