Old Habits don’t have to Die Hard

On my way back from work last week, I paused my car at an T-shaped intersection. As I waited for the heavy traffic to thin out, another car drove around me from the right and aggressively attempted merge. Not having much space to maneuver, the driver’s turning radius got tighter and he  merged only after scraping my front fender. I’d been stationary all this time and his move took me by surprise. After a short pursuit, I caught up with him, tried to make my case and he had the cheek to deny scraping me at all. Having failed to secure his insurance information, I left.

That incident didn’t leave my thoughts for some time after that. Thoughts perpetuating themselves have always been a common situation for me. I imagine more so than for others, as I still think of myself as obsessive by nature. Sure, I felt the injustice and lack of civility in the event, but it was over and I had no business furthering my agenda mentally. Something had to be done!

Much like the driver I’d had the bad fortune of meeting, some old habits give you little room to maneuver and work out different, better responses. They perpetuate mediocre, or even less desirable outcomes until the point where you’ll find yourself thinking in exasperation “How did this happen?” Our goal would then be to deny following the habit, get a better feel for what’s going on and respond differently.

To show you how difficult this can be, I was part of a small experiment where the speaker would call out a color. The idea of the experiment is to not think of the color called out. Most participants found it hard to not imagine the color popping up in their minds every time the speaker called out that color and its variants. I’d encourage you to try this out with someone else calling out the color.

Other tests with a similar principle are the selective attention test, and the attentional blink test. What these tests show is that on constructing a complete idea, the conscious mind loses its capacity to process new stimuli and reevaluate the evolving state of everything, including your own internal state from where intuition originates*. If habitual responses are really complete ideas stemming from the compression of the stimuli-response gap to negligible time, then what we need to do is grow that gap. We’ll need to cue ourselves. Put another way, we’ll need to devise a new habit to disrupt the old one.

This isn’t knowledge relegated to meditation practitioners. Digital marketers also employ cues to drive desirable behaviors and develop habits at the subliminal level**. So, if you want to break an old habit, start with a self-cue. A face with an attention-grabbing expression, say a lovely smile will work well. You might want to experiment with this a bit, think face-piles if you must. Now all you need to do is practice raising that image when faced with the trigger situation.

There’s no lengths to which you can take this. I’ve experienced it work well with starting something new and dealing with procrastination. I’ve been seeking professional opportunities in my industry and I’ve known myself to be tempted by the first opportunity that comes my way without paying enough attention to first determining if it meets the objectives I want to uphold. This usually leads onto hesitation when making hearty commitments and much disappointment at having let myself down. To help grasp the bigger picture, I push myself to ask- is the opportunity *the* blue sky I’ve always imagined? If not, then what would make it so? This is a process that takes time to perfect, and the inquiry can take days. On the flip side, it has helped me make firm commitments when I know they’re closer to where I’m headed.

* These ideas are explained in depth in Search Inside Yourself by Chade-Meng Tan, one of Google’s earliest engineers and personal growth pioneer. Meng uses a happiness, science-driven stance and offers methods for enhancing mindfulness and emotional intelligence in everything you do. You can get the book with Flipkart, India, or from Amazon on your kindle.
** Skinner Marketing- We’re the Rats and Facebook Likes are the Reward. Our internet handlers are using operant conditioning to modify our behavior.