The Benefit of Habits
I came across a simple, but enlightening quote about habits that I thought worth passing on. Basically, it said that because no one escapes forming or falling into habits, we might as well choose positive rather than negative ones. Who could disagree?
Though I’ve blogged about this before, it’s worth repeating—habits and routines serve an evolutionary purpose. Thinking eats up mental energy, so our ancestors who negotiated life without unnecessary thinking had energy left over for more important, life- enhancing tasks. An ancestor who, like clockwork, headed out each morning to hunt for game saved energy and likely survived better than his next-cave neighbor who spent time deciding what to do with his day. So, view habits as mental energy savers.
The quote I ran across is from Olga Kotelko, a 94-year-old competitive athlete. One of her suggestions to live well is to create habits (“Going the distance,” Parade Magazine, 12/29/13m page 11). She chides, “There is no book, you will notice, called The Seven Ephemeral Whims of Highly Successful People,” taking a poke at Steven Covey’s The Seven Habits of Highly Successful People” (a book I highly recommend). The article goes on to explain that, “Under stress, people tend to fall back on routines—whether healthy or unhealthy. In a recent experiment, University of Southern California psychologist Wendy Wood, Ph.D., one of the world’s top experts in habit formation, found that students around exam time slipped into autopilot. It was habits—not cravings, as you might expect—that determined their food choices, for better or worse.”
The reason that you don’t fall easily into new, positive habits, like taking a walk or deep breathing when you get stressed out, is because your old habit of eating is so strongly grooved in your brain. New behaviors may feel strange because you’re unconsciously comparing them to the no-brainer routines you do automatically, and you misinterpret the awkwardness of new behavior as meaning it’s too hard to learn or not for you. It’s better to expect that pressing forward with a new ritual will probably feel a bit strained at first. Knowing this, you’ll be less likely to run from the unfamiliarity of change and set yourself up to return to a habit like eating which is more comfortable.
Practicing habits when you’re not stressed is the only way to ensure that you’ll slip into them when you are stressed. Do anything long enough and it becomes habit. That’s how you learned emotional eating. It also helps to value healthy habits (and not rebel against routine) because you know they will be there for you when you need them.