By Chris Chittenden
“Not choice but habit rules the unreflecting herd.”
… William Wordsworth, 1770 – 1855, English Poet
A while ago, we discussed the challenge of changing our deep-seated habits. In that article, we also identified that creating awareness of our habitual behaviour was the first stage of achieving the elusive goal of permanent change, for without awareness about our actions we cannot choose different ones.
Being aware of our actions may sound easy, but it is not. Our capacity to focus our consciousness is quite limited and if it were not for the actions we take without awareness of them, we would not be able to function. For example, we can walk and talk at the same time. Whilst we are doing so, we are generally not very focused on our walking, we are just doing it; rather we are focused on the conversation. This is all well and good for if we had to be consciously aware of every action we took then we would not get much done.
Since our habits are done outside of focused consciousness, if we want to change them then we must find a way to bring them into consciousness. The most obvious way people employ to be aware is what we term “intentional awareness”. Say you wanted to be less defensive in meetings. A way of dealing with this is to choose to go into a specific meeting with an intention to act in a constructive rather than a defensive way. This often works provided you remember to create intentional awareness in the first place. This is generally what people attempt to do when they make a New Year’s resolution. However as you know, most of these declarations last for a short period of time before we fall back into our old habits. Hence, just applying intentional awareness is generally not enough for us to change a habit. We need more.
We can support intentional awareness through “reflective awareness”. This is a process of regularly reflecting on our behaviour, identifying what happened and looking to what other actions could have been taken and what we will do if a similar situation arises in the future. We find that this is best done at a certain time each day to develop the habit of reflection. However, as with intentional awareness, reflective awareness is generally not a habit people have and as a result they may begin the practice but find they fall out of it after a period of time.
One way of maintaining intentional or reflective awareness is to utilise “triggers” or memory aides. This can take the form of reminders on your computer or stickers on a folder or an item that you see on a regular basis such as a photograph. As long as the item has some meaning for you and that meaning can be created when you might need awareness, then the trigger can help generate awareness.
Whereas the first three strategies are self-oriented, the final strategy involves ongoing feedback from others. We can let a colleague or a friend know that we want to change certain behaviour and ask them to let us know when we have fallen back into our old habits, either in the moment or after the event.
These are four strategies we employ to support change with our clients. We find the best results are achieved when you combine these strategies rather than relying on just one or two. If you want to change your habits, then give these a try, you may well be pleased with the results.
© 2007 Chris Chittenden