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Attitudes are nothing more than habits of thoughts, and habits can be acquired. An action repeated becomes an attitude realized - Paul Myer

>> 16 February 2009

Today I want to talk about habits.
We all have them.

Ed Buryn describes them very well:

“Routines and habits are the Known, protecting us from the Unknown. Habits are also called home. Habits tame the raw wilderness of existence into the civilized comforts of everyday life. Unfortunately, as we all know, habits gradually domesticate all the wildness and energy out of life. So much energy gets bound up in routines and habituated patterns, keeping them alive, that your life goes dead instead. Thus, if you want to discover again the wild side of life, you have to leave “home”; you have to break or dissolve your habits in order to release the energy locked up inside them.”
–Ed Buryn, Vagabonding in the USA (1980)

The Internet has it that one can change a habit in say 21 or 30 days. The primary source for this research however, is a single study, by Dr. Maxwell Maltz, that was done in conjunction with amputee therapy.

That seems a little weak for a theory to be proven. Though the internet is full of the 21 day method.

I have found a researcher who has dedicated the greater part of her career to studying the brain and the neurological effects of learning new things.

Ann Graybiel and her group at the McGovern Institute at MIT have done extensive laboratory work with rats and measuring the “activity of neurons in the striatum, which is in a key position to be involved in this habit-forming business, because it is the main part of the BG [basal ganglia] that receives the reward-related dopamine input on the one hand, and it gets massive inputs from the neocortex on the other hand.[1]

This research has given Graybiel a great deal of insight into how the physical processes of learning take place. It also shows that habits, or new behaviors, are difficul for the brain to create. Once formed, however, these behaviors and their related neural pathways are easily accessed when the conditions are encountered again.

It is important to note that not once in any of the articles on these experiments does Graybiel mention a time frame for establishing these neural patterns in humans. Read also: Brain researchers explain why old habits die hard

What triggered this train of though?

As you may know, I have been trying to fill a page a day into my notebook/journal with something creative or artful. And I must say that the habit feeling is kind of kicking in. Some days I am bad though and do not create anything. Other days I fill 3-4 pages. But I am consistently filling the pages and that is what counts. And I am discovering a whole new world and it is just the greatest fun.

I believe that habits and learning or getting rid of them is a very individual experience.
No matter what studies say though, persistence is key and getting yourself motivated. You need to want to do it and finding reasons to create the 'wanting' is not always easy but key.

I used to smoke. I had tried to give up many times but failed miserably. When we started planning a family I all of a sudden had reason enough to want to quit. The idea of being pregnant and having the responsibility of an unborn baby triggered in me the need and desire to quit. And I must say I did it without too much trouble. I haven't touched a cigarette since.

So if you want to change or create a habit:
  • start analyzing yourself and the habit
  • try to find as many reasons (even if far-fetched) as possible that would make you WANT to change.
  • list the reasons
  • list the pros and cons of the habit (I will get fitter vs it takes time)
  • list the ways or things that would help you reach your goal (stop buying potato chips)
  • stick it to your bathroom mirror and look at it every day
  • find a sponsor to help support your goal
  • start living by it
  • fail, get up, try again
  • persevere and motivate yourself again and again

More on the subject:

Warning: Habits May Be Good for You: Thought-provoking New York Times article discussing research into habit formation and how public health advocates have used that knowledge to encourage positive hygiene habits in developing countries.

MindHabits: Video game developed to “train” attention on positive, growth-enhancing behaviors (looking for acceptance in a sea of rejection, etc.). I wouldn’t recommend this as your sole positive habit related to creativity, but the site is interesting in the way that the developers have created a complex, multi-level game to reinforce helpful actions.

If you still think you can do it in 21 days: 12 Proven steps to break Any habit in 21 days


Anonymous,  17 February 2009 at 02:19  

Great post, and I agree. The 21 days or 30 days is a nice thought but I know from personal experience this is not always true. Like you pointed out, this is different from person to person. Dr. Maltz's book Psycho cybernetics is a great read, but he did talk in absolutes a lot and there is nothing absolute in self development (in my opinion). :-)

Mindful Mimi 17 February 2009 at 22:05  

@ Jay: you are absolutely right in saying there is no absolute in self improvement :-) This daily art journaling has taught me though that doing something creative on a daily basis makes the creativity flow more easily and get better. So maybe that is true for something else too.

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