habit (hab’it), n. a recurrent, often unconscious pattern of behaviour that is acquired through frequent repetition.
unconscious (un kon’shus), adj. not perceived at the level of awareness.
A habit is an unconscious pattern of behaviour – a behaviour that is not perceived at the conscious level of awareness. Does that mean if I can become aware of my patterns of behaviour, then I can change my habits?
Most of us can identify what our destructive patterns are, but are virtually helpless to do anything about them. That’s the nature of a habit – if you could just stop, it wouldn’t be much of a habit.
Too often, it takes a tragedy for us to see our patterns. The first heart attack is a common reason for smokers to change their pattern. The damage that smoking does to the heart and lungs is gradual and difficult to see, but when the damage reaches a critical mass and bloodflow to the heart is compromised, the consequences suddenly become real.
Becoming aware of our patterns of behaviour is more than just identifying them after the fact. It is also more than anticipating a future action. The real challenge is to become aware of the pattern while being immersed in its expression. This is conscious awareness, and can be surprisingly difficult to achieve.
Once you can catch yourself in the middle of the pattern, you can then make the choice to do something different – that is conscious action. After achieving conscious awareness, conscious action should be easy, but the brain resists change and would much prefer to continue in the comfort of its established patterns.
I have the habit of biting my fingernails. I don’t do it often anymore, but occasionally I will catch myself chewing through a nail. In that moment, I have conscious awareness and the opportunity for conscious choice. I can keep chewing my nails, or I can find a set of nail clippers. I’ve found that if I cut them regularly and keep them short, I don’t have the urge to bite them. I have changed my pattern by recognizing it and choosing to do something different.
If I keep taking conscious action often enough, the new pattern becomes to look for nailclippers when my fingernails are getting long, and the old habit of biting is slowly extinguished. Or, if not extinguished, at least the habit is dampened because if I neglect my fingernails for too long, I will inevitably begin biting them again.
That’s the difficulty with a habit or addiction: the pattern never really goes away, it just gets buried under new patterns. This is especially true with the smoking habit – people can quit for many years and all it takes is one drag on a cigarette to revive a pack-a-day pattern.
Patterns affect every aspect of our lives. I have also changed the habit of how I eat by making the conscious choice to have more vegetables in the house instead of processed food. At the grocery store, or farmer’s market, I choose whole foods which are better for my health. When my snacking habit arises, it is easier to appease it with a bowl of oatmeal if there isn’t a box of cookies within reach. I choose to drink water over pop. I choose raisins over sweets.
Sometimes the habit may be doing nothing at all – I used to spend two hours a night in front of the television. Once I recognized this was not a pattern I desired, I made the conscious decision to replace some of this television time with walking. The easiest way to interrupt the patterns of your life is to introduce a new one. It helps if you believe the new pattern is important – like exercise. I believe regular exercise is essential to good health. I want to be healthy, so I make time to go for a walk almost every day. Instead of flopping on the couch after dinner, my wife and I enjoy conversation while we go for a walk. At first, we had to drag ourselves out the door, now we look forward to it.
A number of articles back, I discussed the use of deep breathing meditations as a discipline to deepen awareness and harness the conscious mind. Repeatedly taking a deep breath and focusing your mind on the present moment builds the pattern of taking conscious action on conscious awareness.
It is possible to change your habits once you become aware of them. Habits are repetitive, but by no means static. If you can use your conscious mind to decide to behave a certain way enough times, eventually that behaviour becomes the new pattern.
What pattern would you like to change? Decide in advance what your new pattern is going to be. Keep making the conscious choice until that new action becomes the habit. It works with eating. It works with exercise. It works with smoking.
It works with anything you’d like to change in your life. It’s the only thing that works.
Chris Semrick, B.Sc, RRT, CRE is a Registered Respiratory Therapist, Certified Respiratory Educator and a Smoking Cessation Counselor.