Finding new habits.

When all this started the first few days were basically a novelty. Because I spend most of my time with people I rarely get to work from home but when I do it’s bliss. I mean I generally make it to the couch and that’s me for the day, laptop on my knees, duvet and a 10 step commute to the kitchen. Today we are 3 weeks into working remotely and I’ve had to really look at myself and my life or risk losing all the effort I’ve invested to get to this point.

Yes, life has changed and I’ve found myself with loads of time where I’m not commuting to the office or dojo. Thankfully, I still have karate training as we have gone virtual and pretty much have our total training schedule as was in real life. Most of the dojos I know have taken the same route with a range of classes on line in all sorts of styles… so the challenge for me is to avoid the temptation is to bounce from class to class… Back in Dublin there was a kids class on before the adults training and a few of us would attend both. I often learned more by watching the kids deal with the material but also, there was a lot of physicality in that class that pushed me also. Once we went a few times, it became a habit.

So in this post I want to look a bit at habit because I suspect a lot of people are somewhat like me, struggling to form new habits.

But perhaps we should start with what is habit. Well, people who are much cleverer than me have (neuroscientists) focused on the basal ganglia (more info here) and have mapped our habit-making behaviours to this part of the brain, this area is also known to play a key role in the development of emotions, memories and pattern recognition. What is even more interesting is that decisions are not made in this part of the brain, they for the most part take place in the prefrontal cortex (again more here). So when something is repeated and repeated the brain goes into a sort of automatic mode and actually needs to work less. The usual anecdote is learning to drive a car and the steps from unconscious/incompetence to unconscious/competence. So this frees up the brain to do other things because it has for the most part automated its workload.

So what is habit? Well we know that human behaviour can be changed, it can evolve and learn, (this is why coaches make so much money :)) is influenced by our experiences and is generally though not always, structured for future actions… the challenges to come.

A habit is a routine of repetition of a behaviour that tends to occur at the subconscious level.

Of course we all know that not all habits are positive, in fact Plato and Socrates wrote about this and called it akrasia which can be translated as “weakness of will” and we see this in habits like smoking/alcohol abuse etc.

There is one thing that is worth considering when looking at a habit. That is, the process that moves an action to a habit and it involves that thing that most of us love. Reward. Now you can get really technical in this area and start to talk about reward-guided Pavlovian conditional responses. But all this is pointing to is the fact that all animals are affected by their environment and the stimuli that they come in contact with, and as a result they (we) learn and adapt. (To get a bit technical, we essentially adapt behaviour by learning temporally-contiguous and contingent relationships).

Yeah, but what does all that mean, it’s a fancy way of pointing to the fact that the sound of an ice-cream van for example, would either “create” a longing for the “reward” of ice-cream or illicit a feeling of happiness via the prospect of the reward.

There is no doubt that the recent life changes we have all gone through have disrupted our habitual lives. It’s well known in my company that Thursday is my favourite day of the week, it’s Fight Night in Tooting dojo and they know that I’m super excited usually to be doing this session after work. It’s a habit and my reward is the release of well, loads of endorphins (see note at end of article) and a very tired and happy Ciara goes home at the end.

For the first few weeks of this lockdown things were new and shiny and I started to play around with my work environment and timetable, as all my habits were gone. I sat at my desk for way too long and my exercise routine… all over the place. I was stiff and sore and had aches everywhere.

So I started to look at how I would form new habits…at first I shied away from the 21/90 rule because in my head I didn’t want to accept that we might be in this process for over a hundred days. The 21/90 rule says you should commit to doing something daily for 21 days, at which point it becomes a habit and the 90 days just reinforces it as a life style change. To go a level deeper… a habit starts with a reason, the “so what?” or the “why?”, once the activity is performed a few times then the brain finds that automatic mode we discussed earlier. This then becomes a routine and this leads to the reward stage. In all there are three stages in the “habit loop”.

So, now that I’ve admitted that this will go on for a while I’ve reviewed what I do on a daily basis and have made a conscious decision as to how I am going to structure my time, training and diet. I’m far from being as automated as I was in real life but I’m getting there.

Importantly I’ve taken back control (those who know me will know how important this is for me) and that in itself is making me feel better. Now I have a command centre set up in my house…with all sorts of screens and phones and one rather oversized chair (for the room) that I freed from the office before the lockdown.

I don’t know how long this is going to go on for, the whole thing worries me greatly but I’m taking it day by day and working on managing the good habits that I can generate over the next few days and weeks. I’m having to find new “rewards” and have had to relinquish my disappointment about my life before all of this. One huge change is that I’m running daily again… I haven’t done that in maybe 10 years, but as I said, I’m finding new rewards.

Endorphins are probably the most documented and talked about reactions that occur post training. Despite a common myth (tho still being debated by some) they are NOT addictive… these polypeptides bind with neurotransmitters in the brain. They help to reduce pain, reduce stress and boost immunity, slow the aging process and create a (important for me) sense of euphoria.

One comment

  1. Great stuff Sensei Ciara! Thank you so much for sharing. I hope this helps a lot of people, including some close to me I’ll try and get to read it.

    It all makes so much sense! It is about implementation. We are not in full lockdown in Australia as yet, but, it’s been progressively getting closer, and either way, there are some great takeaways to implement,

    Congratulations on the blog, for all you’ve achieved so far, and for recognising and implementing the changes, the new habits, you need, to keep your life’s work alive, and creating new good habits!

    Have been enjoying seeing you on Strava. I love my 2 year old running habit 😃

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