Picture yourself taking a daily walk down a path through the woods. The path is clear and the way to go is obvious and almost effortless – weeds have been trampled down or worn away, there are no obstacles like branches or saplings in the way, etc. You can easily go for a leisurely stroll or a swift power walk. However, if you were to decide one day to go a different way through the woods, you would have to choose a direction and decide moment by moment where to go next. You’d be thrashing through a thick layer of dried leaves and undergrowth, and maybe have to move some dead branches out of your way. You’d have to find your way around trees, boulders and other obstacles.
Blazing a new trail can be difficult. However, if you took that same route day after day, eventually it, too, would become a well-worn path, and your daily walks would become much easier.
Habits are behaviors that we do over and over again until they become so familiar that we do them automatically, every day, almost without even thinking about it. Much like that path through the woods, in our brains, these behaviors become well-worn nerve pathways.
We all develop daily habits that we do almost without even thinking about them. For example, you may:
- Get out of bed and head straight for the coffee maker every day.
- Eat the same thing every day for breakfast
- Stop at the local donut shop every day for a latte and croissant everyday
- Check your email every day on your lunch break after you grab your sandwich
- Stop at the gym on your way home from work every day to lift weights
Studies show that we even tend to think many of the same thoughts and self-talk day in and day out!
As “creatures of habit,” we stick with what is familiar.
We take the path of least resistance. After all, it takes more energy and effort to start something new. We will walk down the well-worn path through the woods rather than blaze a new trail, unless we have a very good reason to blaze that new trail.
This explains why it is so difficult to start new, healthy habits. Have you ever gotten inspired to get into better physical shape, so you signed up for a gym membership with the intention to work out there three days per week? You were all excited and went to the gym on Monday for an hour. On Wednesday, you went even though you were tired and still a little sore, but you only worked out for 30 minutes. On Friday, the draw of your weekly get-together with coworkers won over your intended new routine, and you skipped the gym completely. On Monday, you drove straight home, completely forgetting about the gym. Sound familiar? Your failure to follow through with your intended routine was not because of a lack of willpower or a personal flaw – it was the power of habit.
The power of habit can be used for “good” or “evil.” The same power that keeps us stuck in “bad” habits, or keeps us from starting new healthy behaviors like going to the gym, is the same power that can help us maintain a healthy behavior for the long haul. The hard part is getting started, but it truly does get easier the more you do it, and soon your healthy behaviors will come as automatically as getting out of bed in the morning.
So take heart! You can use the knowledge of how your brain works to navigate the starting points, and then put your health on “auto-pilot” with healthy habits. You’ll feel great and be free to focus your conscious attention on living out your life’s mission