We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act, but a habit.

– Aristotle

Every day you make decisions about changing an aspect of yourself; you want to break a bad habit and develop a better one. But no matter how hard you try, you always seems to end up back at square one. Why is that?

Most of the time, we keep doing the same actions, but expect drastically different results, which is how Einstein defined insanity. While in its essence, developing a habit is repeating the same action for a period of time, you need to go about it the right way. Simply repeating an action yielding no results, without alteration or improvement, is a fool’s errand.

Changing a habit is hard, but the how-to process is very straightforward. However, to adapt a new way of thinking, you first need to realize why your current one is wrong; so before dwelling into the right way to approach changing habits, let’s take a moment to reflect on why our default method is not very good.

OLD WAYS OF THINKING

A close friend used to have problems dealing with her emotions. She would overreact to every small challenge or difficulty in her way, even some minor, irrelevant events like an acquaintance canceling their meetup at the last minute. She would often start crying, get overly emotional, and throw tantrums.

One time, when she was in a happy mood, I brought the issue up and told her she should get her emotional reactions under control, because if she can’t handle small inconveniences without crying, how is she going to handle real problems throughout life?

She replied that she is aware of it and that she is trying to change it by avoiding stressful situations and trying to stop crying once she startsI assume you probably came to the same conclusion when facing challenges; avoid stress and force yourself to change. And it’s not working.

It’s only normal to want to try to minimize stress in your life, but uncomfortable stuff is going to keep on happening to you and there’s no way around it. You can’t avoid it, but you can change how it affects you. If you let all the bad things get to you, you’re going to have a bad time. On the flip side, if you a keep a positive attitude, you’re not going to become devastated by minor inconveniences.

Coming to an example with my friend, her solution included changing a habit at the moment of weakness; she wanted to immediately stop crying once she started. This solution doesn’t make any sense, because it implies that you can suddenly change your way of thinking at the time of trouble; when things go sour, I will simply force myself to think and act differently.

This approach will never work, because we’re not robots. We can’t simply change our behavior on demand.

For numerous years you have been behaving a certain way. Humans are creatures of habit, and you have programmed yourself to react a certain way to everything, including stress, problems, and danger. Since your actions are ingrained within yourself, when time comes, you will never, ever suddenly react differently.

HIGHWAY TO CHANGE

In order to react differently when problems arise, you need to train yourself when the is no problem. Just like you need to train your muscles in order to lift something heavy, you need to prepare yourself for a situations that bring out your weaknesses.

You need to face your fears when you don’t need to face them; make yourself uncomfortable when you don’t need to be; forcibly put yourself in a position when you know you’d react a certain way and, then consciously react differently.

The more you train yourself to react differently in same situations, your mind will start forming a new pattern, so when an actual problem arises, you will be prepared and won’t have as much trouble changing behavior.

Here is a personal example.

When I was a kid, I was scared of the dark. My imagination was running wild and I would always visualize something scary. Since that fear was buried deep within me, it carried over into my teen years. I wasn’t scared of the dark per se, but because darkness always invoked feelings of fear in me, I’ve built a certain pattern:

 

Darkness ➙ Scary shades ➙ Uncomfortable ➙ Fear

 

I knew there was nothing there and that I wasn’t in danger, but every time the lights were off, I suddenly became extremely uncomfortable. My mind would jump to every horror movie I’ve ever watched, my clothes on the chair would remind me of an intruder, and I suddenly felt like there was a presence in my room and I was being watched.

This led to countless sleepless nights and nightmares which had a direct effect on my health.

It totally sucked.

I grew tired of being scared of literally nothing and decided to change it. But all my efforts and advice from the almighty internet were useless. Initially, I tried the default approach: “next time it gets dark, I won’t be scared”. Of course, it didn’t work.

Then I had an idea.

I realized that I have formed a pattern and a psychological connection (dark = fear) and that in order to change it, I need to consciously create a new pattern.

So I tried a new approach – whenever I was in a situation where I didn’t need to be in the dark, I still decided to do it. When I was going down the staircase of my building, I didn’t turn on the light. If I could go under the street lights when walking home, I stayed in the dark part.

When I was home and the other room was dark, I would simply stand at the edge of the darkness, staring into it, so that I was surrounded by light from three directions and dark from only one. Next time, I took one step forward. Time after that, two steps. Before I knew it, I was in the middle of a dark room, surrounded by nothing but complete darkness, and I was okay with it.

First time I  did any of these things, it was very uncomfortable. But the more I did it, the more a new pattern was forming; I’ve stopped associating darkness with fear.

Now, when I go to bed, I’m not uncomfortable at all; I don’t think of horror movies or look for scary shapes around the room. My mindset has changed and with it, my perception, health, and personal happiness.

Psychologically speaking, method that helped is based on association and is actually a self-applied version of exposure therapy.

This method works, as it’s not just a personal concoction, but it’s also backed up by science. However, keep in mind that there is no quick fix. Your mindset was developed by doing same actions over decades, so before you can adapt a new way of thinking, you need to undo some principles you’ve already implemented.

Treating a bad mindset is like curing addiction; firstly, you need to go through process of detoxification to get all the bad stuff out of your system. Once you’ve hit that personal reset button, you can start taking in the goodies.

So let me ask you – which habit do you want to break or form? Leave a comment and let me know. Don’t forget to include how you are going to start the change! If you’re drawing a blank, feel free to ask for help.

Photo by Matt under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0 (contains modifications)