Unless you’ve just stepped out of a motivational seminar or are on vacation, chances are that your short-term plans do not include any activities that aren’t relatively routine.
The same physical, emotional, and mental variables that seem to cause humans trouble with addiction and self-destructive behaviors ALSO tend to steer us (and yes, it’s assumed you’re human if you’re reading this, and if not, WELCOME, and please introduce yourself…) to doing things that we’re used to.
People tend to avoid stressful situations and instead repeat patterns of success.
It’s the same principle that shapes streams and rivers—gravity and fluids combine to automatically find the path of least resistance. Human behavior tends to follow the same pattern.
Habits and Comfort Zones
Practice may never REALLY “make perfect”, but it undoubtedly will “make easier” any task that is repeated with the intent of improvement. Sometimes improvements show quickly, and abilities are mastered in days or weeks. With other skills it may take years of practice to fine-tune the skills necessary to be competent. Our comfort zone affects this process and encourages us to repeat and cycle our efforts in the areas we’ve already been working.
Regardless of the length of time, a repeated task usually requires less attention to repeat the process. Early iterations or attempts often fail miserably and dramatically. A few iterations may eliminate massive failures but will often leave many minor areas for improvement remaining. As the larger issues are mastered and require less attention because of “muscle memory” (physical, mental, or emotional), the focus can turn to the more nuanced aspects of the activity.
Repetition makes things familiar. Familiarity requires less attention. Less attention means less stress. And those areas where we experience the least stress tend to be areas we return to easily. When we repeatedly, effortlessly, and unconsciously repeat tasks, they often become habits.
Are Habits Positive or Negative?
Of course, context is everything: Habits are a double-edged sword.
Positive habits—leveraged properly—become efficiencies in our lives. For example, a habitualized morning ritual (followed religiously) eliminates the possibility of forgetting deodorant, tooth brushing, matching socks, or even underwear. In addition, since the morning routine has become muscle memory, the need to mentally focus on each activity diminishes and the time can be used for planning, fantasizing, singing, conversing, listening to an audio book, or any other creative mental activity. The time can be enjoyed or made productive BECAUSE of the habit.
On the other hand…
Negative habits—especially when ignored or unnoticed—can cause us to do counterproductive or destructive things. Sometimes negative habits sneak up on us because of simple stress avoidance—we perceive that the “not so positive” path will be easier than facing the stress. These shortcuts often show up in our use of time, our use of resources, our choice of language or tone, our integrity, or in our manipulation of other people to accomplish our agendas. These diversions are often not dramatically destructive in nature, but the repetition of these behaviors causes us to automate them—we do them without thinking, and we do them when it’s destructive. We build blind spots where we ignore these habits, and they can become very destructive influences.
Expanding Our Comfort Zones through Habit Management
Each of us has a different perspective of the world that is a collaboration of our past and present environments, our DNA, our inherent talents and interests, and our choices (including their consequences and our emotional digestion of the process).
Our comfort zones are closely tied to our perspectives—how we uniquely view the world around us. We know what feels good and what we like to avoid. If we can also incorporate a literal and honest understanding of our habits (both positive and negative), we can then take proactive steps to expand our comfort zones.
Negative habits can be eliminated, tempered, or redirected for more positive results. Positive habits can be created or refined to produce even better results. Positive habits can create strategic leverage to eliminate the stresses (often perceived, but not real) that hold us back from trying new things or creating new opportunities. Positive habits eliminate fears and can create momentum in our lives that can naturally begin to override our negative habits.
Once we consciously address our habits and begin to change our behaviors, our comfort zone alarms often begin to sound loudly. Habits (by definition) are geared TO our comfort zone, so to effectively make changes to our habits it is necessary to consciously ignore the fears generated by leaving the comfort zone. It isn’t necessary to completely abandon the comfort zone permanently—but it is important to look at the exercise like a trip to the gym:
Moving Walkways and Habit Change Management
Any change to an established procedure or habit will predictably cause disruption. The potential disruption will be amplified based on the length of time in the habit, the emotional commitment to the habit, and the general intensity of the involvement in the habit.
Because of the nature and role of habits in our behaviors, positive habits tend to be easier to change than negative ones. Why?
Positive habits are geared toward making our life easier. Changes to these types of habits are generally expand our ability to work within (or even expand) our comfort zones. These kinds of changes generate additional momentum. They may not be simple or easy to implement, but it’s generally easier to lean into them.
Negative habits have a slightly different causality and function—they usually serve to shortcut, avoid, or otherwise cheat reality in a way that moves reality into the comfort zone. They often serve as shields or shelters against threats or discomfort. As a result, making changes has a completely different psychological impact than positive habits—it’s often much tougher to WANT to make changes, much less successfully execute and implement them.
Using the Moving Walkways metaphor as a strategic approach is a great way to adjust perspective in a way that makes modifying habits easier—it reduces the potential disruption from the change by proactively and consciously adjusting comfort zones (if even temporarily) so that enough time can be invested to establish a new habit.
By evaluating (honestly) the current habit, it’s often easy to identify small changes that can be made in small steps that will help keep the incremental changes within an acceptable comfort level.
Let’s assume a caffeine habit is moving along at 70 miles per hour. Completely and suddenly eliminating all 64-oz Diet Coke and Café Latte (Grande) consumption (when it’s an established need) will have dramatic negative effects. Not only will the loss of energy be profound, but there are lots of physical side effects that may be overwhelming. Instead of going from 70 to zero (possible, but painful), by fully analyzing the timing, triggers, and behaviors, it’s possible to more gradually step down the speed comfortably.
If the comfort zone (around caffeine) is tied to energy and pleasure, that comfort zone can be adjusted slowly to eliminate the behaviors. If there are 5 different consumption events every day, eliminating one of those events is probably enough to start the process. The 70-mph rate drops to 65 mph in the first step—a single afternoon pick-me-up is eliminated, or maybe the overall portion sizes are reduced to slowly reduce the normal levels.
As small changes are made, the comfort zone adjusts. After a new comfort zone is achieved, then it’s time to make more small changes. Some steps may be more painful than others, but by using a gradual step-down approach through moving from one moving walkway to a marginally slower walkway, negative habits can be systematically eliminated without major disruption.