Are You the Servant or the Master?
“Habit is either the best of servants or the worst of masters.” – – Nathaniel Emmons
Like computer programs, we humans are inclined to follow a set pattern of behaviors and thoughts. We create that pattern and then we repeat it over and over and over again, even if those thoughts and behaviors are no longer needed or are even detrimental. Conversely, we can also create patterns that we repeat again and again without even thinking about it that are highly beneficial and will serve us for years to come.
We know these patterns as habits, and we all have them. Entering the PIN for our debit card or cell phone is a habit. Often if we are disrupted and forced to think about what our PIN is, suddenly we can no longer remember it. That’s how powerful a habit is. It does its job nearly without conscious involvement on our part. This is why you still shut the garage door after saying you would leave it open, unlock all your doors when you exit your car even if there’s no child in the back seat to unbuckle at that moment, or tell yourself you’ll go to bed early and then look up from your show, game or book only to find it’s past midnight already. Habit, habit, habit.
We rarely think about our habits unless we are trying to change them. Often we don’t even realize we have a habit until we think long and hard about it or someone else points them out to us. I invite you to think about your own habits as I share a few stories about mine.
When we honestly start observing ourselves, we will begin to notice exactly what our habits are. I’ll make myself a cup of coffee, then get distracted with things until my drink is cold. I’ll even delay starting my important tasks of the day with minor household jobs and social media. Being distracted and procrastinating instead of pausing and focusing on the present moment is actually a habit. (I’m working on that one!) This habit is not serving me.
On the flip side, I’ve long had an obsessive habit of on-time bill payment (long before autopay was a thing). When we had our son, my schedule was thrown completely out of whack and I started missing due dates. Horrified, I rushed out and put autopay on every single account on which it was offered. However, because of my long standing habit of on-time payment, many creditors waved the late payment fee, my interest rates remained the same and my credit rating remained high. My good habit paid off for me when I was faced with a huge life change. If I had not had that long standing habit, my creditors would not have been so eager to work with me.
If you discover you have a habit that is not serving you, how do you change it? Some habits are more easily changed than others, but at their root habits often come down to who we believe we are. At some point in my past, being distracted may have served me. I didn’t see things I didn’t want to see or avoided some uncomfortable situation. But now I’m grown up and can choose to ignore or confront those things, as I should. Unfortunately, the habit of distracting myself was set.
Here is my plan to correct this habit, and you can use the same plan to work on habits that you would like to change.
1.Thank your subconscious mind for the habit. It sounds counter-intuitive, right? Hear me out. It is just doing its job. By acknowledging that your subconscious mind has done its job well and thanking it for any good purpose this habit has served in the past, you lower the mind’s natural resistance to change and it opens a door for something new to take root. Carl Jung said, “What you resist persists” so please do not skip this step. Fighting against your subconscious mind is a losing battle. You must work with it, and speak to it in a language it understands: feeling.
I am saying to myself, “Thank you for providing me with the habit of being distracted. I’ve accomplished many side jobs because of this habit that may otherwise have gone undone. Thank you for any hardship this may have spared me in the past.”
For another example, let’s choose a habit many people struggle with: overeating. “Thank you for providing me with the habit of overeating. There have been times in my life when I wasn’t sure if I would have enough to eat, and you made sure that I would not starve. Thank you for ensuring that I would have extra energy in storage.”
2.Assign yourself the new habit to learn. Immediately after thanking yourself, tell yourself what habit you want to replace the old one with. You cannot leave a void. If you want to stop watching so much television, you have to choose what you will do with that time instead, such as reading, engaging in a hobby or going to the gym. Again, you have to get into the feeling of what this new habit will be like in order for your subconscious mind to be receptive.
I am saying to myself, “I’m now asking for a new habit to replace being distracted. I release being distracted, and embrace being focused on the task at hand and being present in the current moment. This habit is going to serve me better now. Being focused and present is going to make me feel more satisfied with how my time is spent, and will make me feel more content.”
In our overeating example: “I’m now asking for a new habit to replace eating too much. I release overeating and embrace eating just until my body tells me I am satisfied. When I feel that my hunger is satisfied, I will drink some water (or say a prayer, etc.) instead of continuing to eat. This habit is going to serve me better now. Drinking water once I’m satisfied with my food is going to make me feel more healthy, more balanced and more content with life.”
3.Own it. Once you’ve decided what new habit you want to create, you have to become it. Saying the words “I am” is very powerful, and I recommend using that for this step, which amounts to creating an affirmation. Your subconscious mind will always default back to who you believe that you are. If you can change that, you can change anything.
I am saying to myself, “I am the kind of person who is not easily distracted. I am focused. I am present. I am aware of the task at hand. I am cherishing the feelings of satisfaction and accomplishment this brings me.”
For the overeating example: “I am the kind of person who only eats until they are full. I am nourishing my body according to its needs, and no more. I am enjoying the contented feelings that listening to my body brings to me.”
4.See it. Your subconscious mind loves feelings, but it really wants a picture. Show yourself what you want to see. Visualize yourself engaging in the new habit. See yourself happily doing something else with the television off. Envision yourself stopping and leaving food still on the plate, feeling satisfied and victorious. I am seeing myself productive, focused and checking things off my list while ignoring the dirty dish, school form that needs to be sent in later in the week and the clothes in the dryer that need to be folded. All those things can be done when I’m finished!
5.Set yourself up for success. Make it easier for yourself to adopt this new habit. Schedule something else during the time you would normally watch television, such as dinner with friends. If you want to stop drinking caffeine in the mornings, make sure what you do want to drink is ready and waiting for you. Lay the foundation to implement your new habit.
I am creating a simple and short must-do list for myself the night before. By identifying my most important tasks and keeping the list short, my impulse to be distracted and procrastinate is not triggered quite as heavily. It also keeps my focus on only what needs to be done that day without overwhelming my mind with all the extra things that can be done later.
In our overeating example, you could begin packing a smaller lunch and include a few snacks if you are genuinely still hungry after your meal. Make sure you have your water (or choose what prayer you will say) at the ready. If you go out to a restaurant, order an appetizer or appetizer size portion.
6.Surround yourself with support. The habit you are endeavoring to change may be deeply embedded in your subconscious mind. You may have been doing it for years – even decades. Be gentle with yourself. Interact with people who will be supportive of your change instead of being negative about it (and honestly, that goes no matter what you are doing). There is a reason people go to AA meetings or join groups to control gambling or shopping addictions. The collective mind of a group of people with the same goal is powerful. It also gives you someone to call if you’re struggling. Leave the haters behind and find a buddy. Even if they are not doing the same thing you are, you need someone to be your cheerleader.
I am going to be reporting to my coach how I’m doing with my daily focus and whether or not I checked off my list items. Also, how long it took me to get into my list is also important for me to monitor, because it is a measurement of procrastination and distraction.
If your struggle is overeating, you can probably find a like-minded buddy fairly easily because many people find this challenging. If you don’t feel comfortable sharing, keep it a secret. Just tell your cheerleader “yes” or “no” if you were successful. They can cheer you every time you say yes, and encourage you any time you say no, reminding you that you are in control, you are powerful, and you can make a better choice next time.
The subconscious mind is a tricky, fickle thing. Psychology has been trying to figure it out for ages. One thing that is universal, however, is that a change in behavior requires repetition. You may have to repeat these steps daily for weeks, even multiple times a day. But you know what? IT WORKS. Keep saying the words, feeling the feelings (this is important – remember, your subconscious mind understands feelings) and your desired change WILL become your new habit. I know – I have changed many habits, transforming them from master to servant.
So I leave you with one question: are your habits serving you today?