Updated: Dec 31, 2021
I was reading Dr. Joe Dispenza’s book Becoming Supernatural this week and came across this statistic: 95% of our daily actions are habitual and only 5% require concentrated conscious thought. Well, I’m not sure I believe that the split is actually 95/5, but even if you consider 90/10 or 80/20 habitual to concentrated thought, that’s still a remarkable amount of our day we spend not really thinking about what we are doing. Which got me wondering, is habitually going through the motions like this good or bad? Helpful or harmful? Empowering or limiting?
Let’s start by considering how habits are helpful. Think of all the millions of decisions you could possibly make in a day. What to eat, what to wear, how to go to work/school/shopping, what to do with your hair, what to buy, who to text or talk to, what TV shows to watch, whose emails to answer….and more. We have the potential to process an amazing amount of data during our day and make an incredible number of decisions. What saves us from being crushed under the weight of all this is our habits. Most of us get to work/school/the store basically the same way every time we go. We don’t have to think about it too much. Our mind slips into the “going to ____” autopilot program and off we go. We have autopilot programs for grocery shopping (did you ever notice that you usually walk through the store the same way each time?), getting out of the house in the morning (if you still leave the house these days), loading the dishwasher, paying the bills, doing the yardwork, and more. These habits make your life easier because you don’t have to think through how to do every single action in your life.
Do you know people who don’t have good habits or routines in their life? These people usually live in chaos. Things are a mess, bills aren’t paid, items are lost, kids don’t get picked up on time, and more. It gets ugly. They spend a LOT of time chasing their tails because their brains are overwhelmed by all the decisions that have to be made moment by moment. Habits and routines take a lot of stress out of your life. They help calm your mind and give you space to focus on what is most important.
Here is an example for you: I find few things more frustrating than being ready to leave the house and not being able to find my keys. So now I have a basket next to the door that holds my keys, sunglasses, gloves, and purse. My routine is to put everything in there as soon as I enter the house so that I know right where they are when it is time to leave. If I am traveling, I usually designate one spot in the place I am staying as the holding ground for these items for the same reason. Not having to search for this stuff lets me focus on where I am going, how to get there, and other more important details.
Here’s another example: Many people pick a day (or two) of the week to do laundry. They don’t think about it overly much, they just wake up those mornings and automatically start the process. You can designate any day as the time to do any task which helps reduce the amount of time spent thinking about (or avoiding) these routine things.
These types of ideas come from productivity/simplicity books that are ubiquitous these days. The basic concept is to have routines that trigger you to do specific things at specific times (or days) so that you spend less of your time thinking about and doing tasks that are easily automated. They give you more time to think about the things that you really do need to concentrate on.
But habits and routines can also have a negative side. Some are maladaptive and actually encourage you to do things that really aren’t in your best interest. I like doing yoga later in the evening before bed. Unfortunately, this is also the time I often get caught up in projects, ideas, writing, reading, watching shows, or browsing my Facebook feed. If I get distracted for too long, it's really easy to skip yoga because I want to get to bed. So doing yoga in the evening for me is actually a BAD habit because it is too easy for me to just skip it.
Many people have bad habits around eating junk food, checking email, scrolling on their phones, watching TV, drinking, smoking, and more. These types of habits make it really easy for us to mindlessly do things we’d rather not do. We sit down for five minutes after work and then an hour later realize that we haven’t thought about homework, dinner, or chores. You may watch the news every night at 6PM but then find yourself unable (or unwilling) to get moving again afterward. By Friday a number of chores have piled up that you simply didn’t get done and now there’s a mad rush to get caught up on the weekend when you’d rather do other fun things.
Most of us have a mix of bad and good habits in our lives and, let’s be honest, we probably always will. As with anything else, we don’t aim for perfection, but for doing the best we can.
It's really helpful, though, to take some time periodically to examine your habits and see what is working and what isn't. Keep the habits that simplify your life and reduce chaos. Eliminate or adjust habits that keep you from doing things you want to do. It’s not rocket science. If you are interested in this type of work, check out my blog post Why Productivity is Important or any of the hundreds of productivity/simplicity books/websites/blogs/podcasts out there to get started. Automating routines in your life give you more time to focus on the things that you really need to concentrate on.
My biggest concern with habits, though, is when they stop you from creating big change in your life. If you are spending 95% (or 90% or 80%) of your day doing routine stuff, that only leaves a very tiny portion of your brain space to think about doing something new. Habits are great, but they can also box you in. If you always listen to the same radio stations, always read the same types of books, talk to the same people, listen to the same podcasts, etc. it is really easy to get caught up in the same ideas, perspectives, and opinions. If you want big change in your life, you need to break out of the box to see things in a new way. Change is hard. It requires a lot of thought and experimentation. You will need to experience new things, try new ways of doing things, and see new perspectives. You’ll probably have your beliefs rocked and your opinions challenged. If you aren’t careful, habits can be the death of big change because it’s really easy to fall back on what is familiar and safe.
If you are interested in big change in your life but are having a hard time making anything happen, here is a place to start. Spend a few days noticing your habits. What do you do on autopilot? Some of what you do (probably a lot of what you do) habitually will not stop you from making big change. Where you put your keys or when you do your laundry isn’t going to keep you from breaking out of your box. The habits that might be keeping you back are things like the TV shows you listen to, the people you talk to daily (Is your best friend really helping you make big changes?), the stories you tell yourself in your head (Just suck it up and deal with it!), the things you spend your discretionary time on (or don’t spend your time on), the emails you allow into your inbox (Use that “unsubscribe” button!), and the time you waste on worthless things (Yes, I know those puppy videos are cute, but do you need to watch them for an hour?). These are the kinds of things that keep you stuck in the same perspective, the same mindset, the same patterns of mind that you want to break away from.
Once you have noticed some of the habits that are keeping you stuck on autopilot, then it’s time to get to work. Start to eliminate them or adjust them to give you more time to explore new things. So instead of watching YouTube during lunch, find a new podcast that will challenge your thinking. Or perhaps you are like me and have bad habits surrounding an exercise routine. Maybe I need to start setting an alarm so that I remember to stop and do yoga at 10PM every night. Maybe you need to switch it up and walk/run somewhere different. If you talk to the same 4 people every day, break that habit by calling up friends you haven’t talked to in a while. Go somewhere new to hang out and try to meet some different people. Pick up a book about something you’ve never tried before. Life coach Martha Beck suggests that even doing simple things like wearing a hat while you clean your house or sitting in a new place as you do your morning meditation can help you break out of old habits and see the world in a new way. There are a million ways to hack your habits (good and bad) to help you break out of your box and create big change.
Habits can work for you and against you. The trick is using that 5% (or 10% or 20%) of your conscious brain that is focusing on what is going on to notice your habits and dump the ones that aren’t working. This opens you up to seeing the world in a new way which in turn allows change to happen. If you are having trouble doing this yourself, there are plenty of coaches out there who can help you see your habits from a new perspective and create change. Don’t let your habits hold you back!