Sometimes, peering into the fridge I think, “what am I looking for and how did I get here?”
The short answer (at least to the second question) is habit, a kind of autopilot that got me from my desk to the fridge without being fully aware of it. This type of automatic behaviour is the defining feature of habits and psychology has a lot of useful things to say about them. Understanding how they work can give us a lot of control over our quality of life.
It’s worth noting that habits have evolved because they can be incredibly useful. Automatic behaviour needs less conscious effort which makes us more likely to notice important and unexpected events. These could be someone stepping in front of our car or changes in tone of voice or body language of someone we’re talking to.
The most difficult part of breaking a bad habit is that we are often unaware of the behaviour while we’re doing it. There are several simple tools that can help cue us to be more alert when we’re acting unconsciously but to make serious progress undermining bad habits, we need to strengthen our working memory. This makes us more aware of our actions from moment to moment and is easily achieved with a little bit of regular attention training, mostly known as mindfulness.
As for developing healthy habits, this is behaviour that we must do consciously and consistently to transform it into a natural, habitual response. There are a few more steps in achieving this, but a little attention training will also be of huge benefit as we try to increase the percentage of doing the desirable behaviour versus the times we forget. Once we have a few small successes, it’s simply a matter of increasing them until they are automatic.
There’s no doubt that building or breaking habits can seem almost impossible. However, if we are a little consistent clever about it, we can develop a lifestyle that is automatically healthy and positive.