I returned home from the Camino one month ago today. The past month has been that of re-integration. Getting used to being home, figuring out a routine, starting the search to get back into the job market have occupied my days. Coupled with the aforementioned has also come a phenomenon I have experienced from time to time over the years. I have learned to expect it, and to some degree learned to deal with it.
Several weeks ago I asked for individuals to provide me with a subject to write on. From one of my readers I received the following question.
“You speak in your blog of making intentional changes. Can you identify any unintentional changes that you later identified as a bad habit? And, can you recall any details of how they got there?”
Over the years, like many, I have had my share of bad habits. I was a chain smoker for over a decade. I used to drink a gallon or more of regular Coca-Cola a day. I have been a nail biter since the earliest days of my self-awareness. The list goes on.
Habits are a funny thing. Whether good or bad, habits they are formed via a “habit loop”. You have a trigger, followed by the behavior itself, and then the reward. Once these habits are formed, we can complete the action without even being aware we are doing it. As a smoker there were innumerable times, I would light a cigarette and smoke nearly the whole thing, before I was consciously aware I was smoking. The habit was so ingrained, the decision-making and awareness portions of your brain aren’t involved in the process at all.
Nail biting is another habit that is 100% autonomous of the mental decision-making process. The only instances in which I am aware I am biting my nails is when someone points it out.
Habits can work as a coping mechanism. For example, I realized early on after picking up smoking, it was the perfect social escape for me. I used to be loaded with social anxiety. Large social gatherings, parties, bars, and any other venue where I didn’t know a good number of people caused a great deal of anxiety. Smoking provided me with an out. It’s completely acceptable to excuse yourself from nearly any social situation to “have a smoke”.
Following the habit loop model. Social situations made me uncomfortable, trigger. I excused myself to smoke, habit. I was free from the social situation, AND, I also got the buzz from the nicotine. Double reward.
To touch on a habit that entered my life without a lot of conscious thought. About 7 years ago, I drastically cut my caffeine intake. I had read a fair amount of information on the potential long-term health effects of habitual caffeine intake. I decided I would cut way down on my caffeine intake. No small feat really, I generally drank 3 cups of coffee over the course of the morning. At lunch I would have a diet coke. The afternoon would be another diet coke or two or three. Followed by Ice tea or another diet coke in the evening.
I switched from regular coffee to decaf coffee. I gave up all caffeinated cola beverage. The one item I didn’t give up was iced tea. After experiencing 3 solid days of headache and fatigue, I started feeling better. My energy levels returned. I discovered I slept a lot more soundly. An unintended result I noticed within a week of cutting my caffeine intake, my day-to-day anxiety levels were drastically reduced. I felt much more relaxed, and situations in which my anxiety would spiral nearly out of control greatly diminished. In short, I felt great.
When breaking any habit, diligence is required. If you become complacent, the old habit can rear its ugly head. In the case of caffeine, I was hugely successful. I felt great, recovered from withdrawals and never really looked back.
Several years passed and all was well. Then one morning, after several days of unrestful sleep and long days, I ordered a half-caf latte at Starbucks. I went from dragging to focused and productive. Over the next several days, the poor sleep continued. And over the next several days, I continued ordering half caf lattes. The next week, even tho my restful sleep returned, I was still dragging in the morning. I kept at the half-caf lattes from Starbucks. Then around 10 am, I started making a regular coffee at work. Within a month, my old routine had returned. I was back to drinking 3 cups of regular coffee in the morning. Fortunately, I refrained from adding the diet cokes. Instead I would have a cup of coffee after lunch.
Three or four years of refraining from caffeine were interrupted within a months time. My old habit had returned. My high anxiety returned. The habit had crept back in. Having learned the benefits a restricted caffeine diet provided for me, my relapse was only a couple of months long. I was soon back on the wagon.
Habits come and go. The important take away is this: living conscientiously, and regularly evaluating what we do and why, makes all the difference. While, habits and “autopilot” serve a huge benefit in life. It’s important to evaluate our behaviors from time to time to ensure they are benefiting us, and not hindering or harming us.
As time goes by, my blog seems to be evolving. I am enjoying the time I spend writing and the feedback I receive from my readers. In the psychological terms, this is referred to as a positive feedback loop. I dig it.
As a kid I used to love the “choose your own adventure” books. I would often read every possible adventure choice to see how things turned out. It revealed to me a very important lesson I have carried into adulthood. Every decision we make affects our future. To what extent we may never know, or may never think about.
Who we are today is a direct result of the decisions we have made in the past. This is can be rather sobering for those whom have never thought much about it. There is a huge amount of opportunity when we think of life in this manner. When you reflect on your life, if you decide you don’t like who you are today, it is very EASY to make changes. Simply change the decisions you make on a daily basis.
For example, if you wake up one morning and discover you are 30 pounds overweight (speaking from my own personal experience) it isn’t hugely difficult to make changes to decrease the waistline bulge. You simply have to pay attention to the decisions you, often, make on autopilot every single day. Start first thing in the morning. Instead of the venti latte, perhaps, switch to a tall coffee. Use just a splash of half and half and add no sugar. With this simple cognitive decision, you have removed 200-400 calories from you diet. And the day just started. Think about every single thing you put in your body and the result it’s having. Are the decisions and habits about diet serving you or hindering you?
This is one example of choosing your own adventure in life. The opportunities for change in your life are only as limited as the time you are willing to spend reviewing the decisions you make every day.
We are a society of instant gratification. We want it NOW! and we want it bigger, better, faster. Unfortunately, when it comes to personal development and change, things rarely happen this quickly. We WAY over estimate what we can accomplish in a month, or a year. We way UNDER estimate what we can accomplish in 5 or 10 years. Remember, the decisions which brought you to where you are, took your entire lifetime to make. Don’t be discouraged if the changes you make don’t yield immediate results. If you stick with it, it is assured you will see differences in your life.
An airplane leaving from LA heading to London charts a course. Just to make things easy, let’s say to fly to London, the course set is dead on 90 degrees (east). Minutes after take off, the pilot thinks the course is an error, and adjusts the course to 85 degrees. The plane would still be heading east, but now with a slight northerly heading. If you were a passenger that had flown this route many times, the route would appear unchanged for you for quite some time. Due to the large body of water you would fly over called the Atlantic Ocean in route to London, the course change would likely be completely imperceptible to you. The change would only become clear around the time you were supposed to arrive in London. In fact, from a simple 5 degree change at the beginning of the trip, you would be nearly 500 miles north of London when you were due to arrive!
I know, I know. what’s the point? The point is, some believe you must make drastic change, abrupt, changes in life to see any benefit. Often, these choices are impossible to adhere to, and in the long run result in little or no long term effect. However, small changes, over the course of longer periods of time can result in huge changes. And all the while, the small change you made is virtually imperceptible to your daily life.
Your mileage may vary, but give it a try! Start with something small, set an intention for change, and monitor yourself regularly. Watch the changed you unfold.
Now, I need some help from you.
After receiving very good questions from you for my Q&A blog post, I wanted to offer up another opportunity for you to pick the content of my upcoming writings.
Your assignment if you choose to accept it, Email, text, or respond in the comments of this message, to provide me a topic you would like me to write about. It can be anything, anything at all. With a few exceptions, I will do my best to write about the topic you choose! It can be something you are curious to know about me. Or it can be some sort of informative blog post on a subject you simply want to know more about but don’t really have the desire to research. Make it fun! I want to write! And I want to write about things of direct interest to you!
I look forward to your feed back.