How to Thrive With the Power of Habits

by Corinna Freitag

Habits are powerful. And they are great, when they help us to save time and energy, and to be more efficient. But there is also a flip side and habits can prevent us from doing the right things and being effective. Why are habits so powerful?

How our brain works

From a neuroscientific standpoint, when we learn something new, neurons in our brain assemble to form thousands of synaptic connections and those connections then assemble into complex, three-dimensional neurological networks. Our brain circuitry regarding the new learning enhances with practicing the new learning over and over again. Through frequent repetition the neurons that fire together become more and more wired together. You can call a habit a well-established brain circuitry or a highway of neurons.

The advantage of habits

Habits run unconsciously just like an automatic software program or a macro without thinking. We are on autopilot. This is great to save time and energy. For example, when we get up in the morning we do not need to search for the bathroom or think if we brush first our teeth or take a shower. We just follow our day-to-day routine.

Habits can be changed

In a lecture by the neurobiologist Gerald Hüther I learned that human behaviors are genetically not programmed. It develops by the experiences, which we make during our life. Thus, we are able to change and to change our habits. We have no excuses for our bad habits. We have sole responsibility.

The different phases of learnings

And here starts the trouble – when we want to get rid of bad habits or want to learn something new. When we want to get rid of bad habits we fall into old patterns. And when we want to learn something new, at the beginning it feels odd and uncomfortable. For example, fold your hands. Automatically, one of your thumbs will be in front of the others. For me the left thumb is in front. Now, do it the other way around. If I fold my hands with the right thumb in front, this feels so awkward. And this is only about folding our hands!

Albert Bandura developed a model about different phases of learnings. The first phase is called unconscious incompetence. We do not have the knowledge or skills to do something. But we are also not aware of this. So, it does not bother us. When we start to learn something new, we get into the next phase, called conscious incompetence. We might have already more knowledge and skills about this something compared to the phase of unconscious incompetence as we started already to learn and practice. But now we are aware of our incompetence. And it troubles us. Even though, that this is a great step and the most important to get aware of something and we should be proud of us. The third phase is the conscious competence. This is most fun as we acquired the new knowledge and skills. They are not fully developed and therefore, we need to concentrate, when we are doing it. And with the last phase we are back to our habits. It is called automated competence. The new knowledge and skills became a routine.

The level of competence can be correlated with motivation. At the beginning, when we have only minor knowledge and skills our enthusiasm is very high. Interestingly, when our competence increases our motivation decreases. In the last phase, when we attained mastery regarding our new knowledge and skills, we become again enthusiastic. Literally our motivation comes back overnight. Unfortunately, if we want to be highly engaged masters in a certain area, we have to go through these phases. And during those phases it is completely normal that we go through plateaus, in which it feels that we make no progress or even that we have setbacks.

Start acting and practicing while enjoying the process

When we want to change something or learn or do something new, we cannot have the expectation that everything works and feels good right away. Most of the time at the beginning it feels strange. And our system wants to keep us in our comfort zone as this saves energy. It starts to feel good and comfortable through action and repetition. And with the knowledge, that it is hard to change something and learn something new, we can stop to blame ourselves in case it does not work immediately. Instead we should be proud that we got aware of what we want to change and start acting and practicing with having fun and enjoying the process. Eventually we will get rid of the bad habit and we will enrich our portfolio with new great habits and skills.

Which new habit do you want to learn?

Photo by Ray Bilcliff

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