(De)Habitizing: Train Your Auto-Pilot

Like everyone, I love to think of myself as a complex, deep human being with a intricate personality and a whole rainbow of hopes and dreams. In reality though, I am entertained by Internet memes, I get pissed when people cut in line and oh yeah, I do almost 80% of what I do without thinking about it.

I’ve brushed my teeth before bed without as much as a passing thought about the toothpaste’s minty freshness. I check my e-mail without even consciously thinking about it. Without registering I’ve done it, I pick up my boyfriend’s blueberry muffin at the bakery. Why is that? Well…got a minute?

Our brains are the most active body organ of all (enter obvious penis joke here). Not only does it have to monitor and execute all our bodily sensations, functions and processes, it also has to do everything else: planning, creativity, language, interpreting our environment, etc. And while it’s doing all that, it’s also making you think, feel and do all sorts of stuff. Honey. If most of that shit wasn’t on automatic, it would heat up like an old computer and eventually explode.

To prevent our head from going in overdrive, the moment any behavior, thought and feeling can be made automatic: Your brain is going to do it. This way it saves as much of its capacity as possible for the situations that require quick or complex thinking, a change of mind or unexpected turn of events (like dinosaurs coming out of the bushes: yay evolution).

Now, this can obviously be put to good use as well as have a bad influence. Since juicing and eating healthier, pretty much all my groceries come from the fresh vegetable&fruit sections in the supermarket, so these days that’s all I go for. After shopping like this for almost a year, my autopilot just raids the first bit in the supermarket and then goes to check-out. I don’t think about what M&M’s I could buy, what whiteflour pastries I want: I just buy vegetables, fruits, some pasta sauce and out I go. I have a really bad one too; I have had the worst coffee habit at work. Every break I found myself standing at the coffee stand ordering a latte, without even thinking about it. I’d end up drinking four cups of coffee every day, because I had accidentally trained my auto-pilot to coffee overdose.

Now, this whole autopilot thing means if I want to change my behavior for whatever reason, I have to make the conscious effort to do so. If I need to go into the other aisles if I need something different from the supermarket, I can’t go strutting to Beyonce’s End Of Time like I usually do; I have to keep my eyes open and consciously remind myself I need to buy popcorn and candy for movienight.

It also means that if I want to break this latte-work habit, it means I have to pay very close attention to myself at work. I can’t let my guard down. I need to stay alert for a while so I can prevent my sneakers from walking downstairs and saying “Latte, please” to the lady behind the counter.

If you want to improve certain aspects of your life, it’s going to be about habitizing & dehabitizing certain behaviors of yourself. How would you go about doing that?

Step 1: The first changes require all your attention. You have to actively distract yourself from whatever habit you used to have or you have to actively participate in the habit you want to install. You turn off auto-pilot and have to pay a lot of attention to what the fuck you are doing for a while. Set timers for the hours you don’t want to spend on-line. Eyes wide open while shopping for healthy foods in the supermarket. Talk to anyone who will have you during the coffee break so you won’t break and go get coffee.

Step 2: After you’ve done this for a while (a couple of days, a week, a couple of weeks), dependent on how deeply ingrained a certain habit is or was, you’ll notice it will require less and less of your active participation. An Internet-free hour will be over before you know it. You still spot the candy section in a store but skip it anyway. You spend your coffee breaks doing something else. There is still some effort and you are still semi-consciously paying attention.

Step 3: You’re doing it without paying attention. After a few weeks, it will be all you know. It will require hardly any attention on your part anymore because by now your brain has adapted it as its Go-To Autopilot Program.

You know why? Because no matter how complex we might be as human beings, part of us is as simple as a omputer. We wire ourselves to certain behaviors, and that just gets executed for the sake of our survival and optimal functioning. Think about it. Oh, and use it to your advantage. Obviously.  

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  1. Dit moet ik vaker gebruiken! Ik heb het gedaan met flossen en doe het nu automatisch elke avond.
    Behalve als ik uit mijn ritme verstoord wordt, wat ‘s ochtends wel eens gebeurd. Dan kan het zo maar zijn dat ik zonder mijn tanden gepoetst te hebben of zonder make up de deur uitga.

  2. Ah, precies wat ik even moest lezen! Ik ben vanuit de wajong een reintegratietraject begonnen met als middel scholing. Nu moet ik werken aan het uitspreken van mijn gevoelens en erover praten, zodat ik hopelijk minder ga piekeren en minder moe word. Het is lastig, want ik denk er gewoon niet aan om naar mijn mentor of iemand anders te stappen. Maar ik kan er best een gewoonte van maken, when I put in the effort. Dankje!

    1. Precies, je kunt het jezelf aan leren en het klinkt alsof het op de lange termijn goed voor je zal zijn om het eruit te laten en het minder vast te houden!