One morning last week, while driving my car, I was switching back and forth between two radio stations using the up-and-down buttons on my steering wheel. This is something I do most mornings while driving, always between these two stations. However, on that day, I suddenly realized that I press each button three times to get from one station to the other, skipping over two other stations that I typically don’t have much interest in. I promptly reprogrammed my preset stations so the two stations I actually listen to are only one push of a button away from each other.
It’s a silly example, but I had never noticed this before because I had simply gotten into the habit of pushing a button three times to get to the channel I wanted. I did it without a thought. By bringing some awareness to what I was doing, I was able to see that there was a (slightly) better way. While this example is pretty trivial and hardly life changing, it makes me wonder what other things I do throughout the day without thinking, things that I could be doing differently that could make a real impact in the quality of my life.
Our brains love habits
I’m not suggesting that we should never get into habits. In fact, habits are unavoidable. Our brains are designed for habits – by following habituated patterns, we actually use less energy because our brains don’t have to work as hard. However, by bringing some awareness to our habits, we can be more intentional about the habits we create.
Of course, it takes work to create a new habit. For instance, after I changed the station presets on my radio, for at least the next few mornings in my car, I ended up going to the wrong station because I was still pushing the buttons on my steering wheel three times. I’ve had to intentionally be more aware when changing the station so that I can begin to create the habit of pushing the buttons only once. Sometime soon, I’ll be pushing that button once without even noticing it.
Creating new, advantageous habit can be tracked along four stages of the Conscious Competence Ladder, created by Noel Burch at Gordon Training International in the 1970s:
Unconscious incompetence – you’re not yet aware that you are doing something in a way that is not advantageous (or competent). Here, I pushed the button three times without a thought.
Conscious incompetence – you are now aware that you are doing something in a way that is not advantageous, yet you still haven’t really changed the behavior yet. I was in this stage for a few days, pushing the button three times, even though I knew I now only need to push it once.
Conscious competence – you start to do a more advantageous behavior, but it takes effort to choose to do this behavior each time. This is where I am now with my radio. I push the button once to change the station, but I still have to think about it as I do it.
Unconscious competence – the new, advantageous behavior has become a habit; you do it without thinking about it. Once my motor memory learns the one-push station change, I won’t have to pay any attention to the action required to change the channel.
Getting into the habit of mindfulness
To move through this model of learning a new habit, it takes conscious attention (mindfulness) to catch the old habit so that we can choose to act differently. And with repetition, our brains will learn new habits.
However, for many of us, mindfulness is not a habit. So how do we train our brains to bring more conscious attention to our experience? Well, the easiest answer is: practice mindfulness. Be more aware of the present experience. When your mind wanders, bring it back to your experience.
For those of you familiar with meditation, this sounds familiar. And one great way to practice mindfulness is to meditate. Check out UCLA’s web page with a few simple guided meditations to get started.
To learn how body psychotherapy helps improve mindfulness and disrupts old habits, click here.
What habits are you aware of and would like to change? Join the conversation on Facebook.
Image #1 courtesy of Photo by Thomas.
Image #2 courtesy of John Gillespie.