Passenger or pilot?
In life you are either a passenger or a pilot – it’s your choice…
This is particularly important when it is your OWN life you are talking about. Putting your oxygen mask on before helping others is another great metaphor for realising that we need to be in control of our own lives before reaching out to others.
Taking charge of our lives, and making the necessary changes to get where we want to be can be daunting. So how do we learn to change our habits? How do we recognise whether they are ‘good’ or ‘bad’ in the first place? Some are obvious – we know we probably shouldn’t be eating junk food – particularly before bed! But others may not be quite so obvious at first. Habits are the brain’s way of helping us to simultaneously memorise and repeat the things we do on a regular basis – for example, we instinctively reach for the light switch upon entering a darkened room, we automatically look both ways before crossing the road (at least if we were taught the green cross code!!). Habits are learned progressively and usually performed unconsciously. The brain is capable of changing, adapting and reorganizing neural pathways as a response to various changes in the environment or certain situations.
As early as 1890 Psychologist William James suggested that the brain was perhaps not as unchanging as previously believed. In his book The Principles of Psychology, he wrote, “Organic matter, especially nervous tissue, seems endowed with a very extraordinary degree of plasticity.” However, this idea went largely ignored for many years.
In the 1920s, researcher Karl Lashley provided evidence of changes in the neural pathways of rhesus monkeys. By the 1960s, researchers began to explore cases in which older adults who had suffered massive strokes were able to regain functioning, demonstrating that the brain was much more malleable than previously believed.
Modern researchers have also found evidence that the brain is able to rewire itself following damage. The human brain is composed of approximately 86 billion neurons. Early researchers believed that neurogenesis, or the creation of new neurons, stopped shortly after birth, however it is now understood that the brain possesses the remarkable capacity to reorganise pathways, create new connections and, in some cases, even create new neurons.
The first step is to acknowledge that you have a bad habit and admit that it is a problem, or causing issues that you no longer want to experience. Cultivating awareness of the habit can help identify the root of it and encourage active change. Anticipating the early warning signs or triggers that you are about to act out the old habit is an important part in breaking the cycle – we are very good at self-sabotage when trying to change our behavioural patterns and can always come up with a myriad of excuses such as “I don’t have time” or “I’ll start tomorrow”.
It can help to implement some positive changes when trying to break old habits so that they then become the new (and healthier) habit.
Specify the new habit you want to cultivate and be honest about why you want to change the habits. Understand the value to you: How will it change you for the better, what are the benefits and why should you make the effort to change? Make sure it is attainable and within your means. Make sure that you are doing something that you really want to do – if you don’t love the means, you won’t ever sustain the ends.
Make a realistic action plan that you can stick to so that you don’t overwhelm yourself from the start!
Through repeating your actions and practicing and retraining your brain, you are also re-wiring your neural pathways according to the new habit you are trying to create. In addition, pathways that are not used (i.e your old habits) start to weaken and wear off in time, making room for the new pathways to form. The brain is a very flexible and adaptive machine but the effort you put in to make changes is the deciding factor in how quickly old habits can be broken and new habits formed.
Make sure that the people around you really care about you and your goals. Tell them what you are doing so that you become accountable – let them help you by encouraging the good habits and not providing temptation for the old ones. If there are people around you who are trying to sabotage your efforts, question why you want them in your life. Build yourself a team of friends who will support each other in their goals. Surround yourself with an army of people who want you to succeed.
Aristotle famously said: “We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act, but a habit”