How Did I Develop That Habit?

Have you ever found yourself doing something and wonder “how did this happen?”  It usually happens to me when I discover I’ve scarfed a full bag of white cheddar cheese popcorn.  Of course, I realize it after the fact, when I’m trying to artfully hide the bag in the garbage.  What happened?   I developed a habit unconsciously.

Some habits are easy to develop, after a long day at work, saying to yourself “I’m so tired, I’ll just veg out for an hour,” then binge watching Netflix for three-plus hours.  Add some chips and salsa, cookies and ice cream or whatever your snack of choice.  Repeat a few times and BOOM, you have a habit.

Other habits are more difficult to recognize.  Someone either brings the habit to your attention or you experience negative consequences.  I had a client a few years ago who complained that she wasn’t taken seriously in meetings.  She was an accomplished professional in her field and a creative problem-solver.    

In our first coaching session, I noticed that when she was thinking she would twirl her long red hair around her finger, reminding me of a small girl.  She was unconscious to her behavior.  Yet it was very visible to everyone else around her.

Sometimes the habit is invisible to others.   An example are the stories we tell ourselves.  “Life’s not fair.”  “I can’t get what I need.”  “I’ll never find my soul mate.”  “Everyone gets promoted but me.”  Our behavior is a result of the stories we tell ourselves.  Repeat these stories a few times and you’ve got a habitual way of responding to life.

Another client complained that he had received negative feedback on his performance review that wasn’t justified.  As we began to explore the situation, I uncovered a story.  This executive hated meetings.  He felt they were a waste of time and that most people just liked to hear themselves talk.

His story was, “Meetings are a waste of my time.”  When he entered the conference room, he was already angry and agitated.  Then he proceeded to check out.  He spent most of each meeting checking his emails on his phone.  His behavior made it difficult to address issues and get resolution to problems or questions answered.  He had developed a habit.

Why do we create habits?  Blame it on that organ inside your skull that looks like a large gray walnut.  The brain has evolved to be as efficient as possible.  When we repeat a behavior, the brain recognizes a pattern and begins to search for a trigger or cue that will signal which set of neural pathways to activate in the future.

Once the brain has the sequence identified, all it needs is the cue or trigger, and it can shift its attention and focus to another activity.  BOOM!  Whether it is consciously or unconsciously developed, a habit has been created.

Wait a minute, isn’t there something else involved in creating a habit?  Ah yes, the reward.  All habits require a reward.  For the client who twirled her hair, the reward was a calming sensation.  She worried what others would think of her ideas, which created anxiety.  Twirling her hair reduced her anxiety.

For the executive who was unpleasant (to say the least) in meetings, his reward was checking his email.  (Emails are amazingly addictive.)  His story about meetings was a trigger, he experienced an emotional response, and then rewarded himself with his addiction, emails.  

When you notice a bad habit, search for the pattern.  What is the trigger?  Is it a thought, an emotion, a smell, a memory, a visual cue?  What behavior is associated with the cue?  What is the reward? 

When you have the pattern identified you can begin to re-engineer a new behavior consciously.  Practice the new sequence until it becomes automatic.  BOOM!  A new habit is created.

What new habits do you want to create?