June 4, 2007

Force of habit

Thinking out loud here: Your brain encourages you to follow habits. Habits are generally a good thing because they enable us to accomplish tasks with minimized mental effort.

When you acquire a bad habit, however, it’s still a habit, and your brain instinctively discourages your not following it. The discouragement comes in the form of a feeling of wrongness, a tension, a sense of being forced (by push or pull) into a course of action—a drive to do what the habit prescribes.

It has just occurred to me that I might better be able to act in non-accordance with unwanted habits if I stop thinking about them in terms of “something to fight” or “something to willfully ignore.” That sort of thought reifies the habit: accords it status as an entity with a will unto itself. (A while back, my good friend Nick described such entities as “evil spirits”—a vivid and, in certain states of mind, useful perspective.)

Instead, I’m realizing that it’s not the habit per se that’s making me feel all wrong for not following it. A habit is just a learned sequence of mental states and actions, a program. The problem, rather, is the habit-reinforcing nature of the brain, akin to hunger or the reproductive drive or any other instinct (or addiction), creating the sensation of wrongness when I’m out of line.

When faced with a habit I wish to overcome, I shall endeavor to recognize the perceived force of that habit as a sensation—not an ontological state of wrongness or real importance—and acknowledge it as a signal from my instincts, like any other sensation or emotion, and then direct my attention to the thing I prefer to be doing.

1 comment:

  1. Glad to see that you’re sharing thoughts with us, again.

    Interesting thoughts about habits. When I’m trying to eliminate a “bad habit”, I sometimes try to replace it with something that makes me feel better about myself. For example, when I was a child/teenager, I bit my nails badly. In an effort to stop, I started using colored nail polish to make my hands look nicer. It was very difficult to call more attention to my very short nails, but, over time, I was able to stop the habit that was bringing me so much negative feeling.

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