Much of what we do as humans is habit.
It’s essential to our existence – the brain power required to make every single decision from scratch, every single time, would overwhelm us. We wouldn’t be able to function.
For each event in life, thousands of times an hour, the brain effectively learns from the past, and makes a guess on what to do based on the last time this event happened. Some things become so deeply ingrained that you don’t actively make a decision.
For example, how much of your drive to work do you remember this morning? The chances are you can’t remember anything specific, UNLESS something significantly out of the ordinary happened. If someone cuts you up, or a child runs into the road, your brain is forced to get out of auto-pilot and make new decisions. It breaks up habitual behaviour.
So how does this apply to your health, fitness and diet?
Well, many decisions you make have been made at a sub-conscious level before your “active” brain has fully endorsed them. How many times have you boiled the kettle without thinking? Found yourself opening the fridge but can’t remember deciding to? It’s not just getting old (although, admittedly, that doesn’t help…!), it’s decision making at a level below your conscious thought. Your brain is only asking you to effectively rubber-stamp a decision that’s already been made.
If your habit is to go straight home after work, it’s going to take a major amount of thinking and planning to head to the gym instead. All your habits – what you take to work, your gym kit, how you eat at work, what time you leave, which route you take home – will conspire to lead you home instead of to the gym.
Your route around the supermarket is likely habit based (and massively influenced by design), leading you past the same foods you’ve always bought, with a brain screaming at you to pick up the things you always pick up. Going to a new supermarket with a different layout breaks the habits and forces you to think about what you’re buying.
What you do in the gym is based around habit. Maybe from the first programme you ever did? Maybe you always start with squats, because that’s what you’ve always done? Maybe you don’t learn overhead pressing, because it looks hard? Autopilot is a hard thing to switch off, because it’s easier for your brain to just do what it’s always done.
Changing habits takes deliberate effort and planning. When you delete something on a hard drive, it doesn’t actually delete – it just holds up a big sign to say “I can be overwritten when space is needed”. Your brain works in a similar way. Unless you actively over-write a habit with something new, and something that promotes a similar feeling, the old habit never really goes away.
It’s very, very difficult to simply “stop” doing something without finding a substitute. All you’re effectively doing is delaying the inevitable switch back into old routines. Willpower alone only gets you so far – it’s habit change that makes long-term improvements possible.
What habits do you have that are holding you back from achieving what you want? What could you replace that habit with to get your closer to your goal?
Just remember – your brain is trying to make life easy for itself. You can’t change the hardware – but you can change the programming! Your job is to make sure that it has good, healthy habits to fall back on, not detrimental ones!