The Search for Meaning

Science, spirituality, and our desire for satisfaction

You Can Take Control: Breaking Bad Habits

Learn to recognize when your levels of self-control are low

“How are you doing?” someone asks. “I’m busy,” we often respond. “Crazy busy.” We have our noses to the grindstone, our hands on the throttle, and our shoulders to whatever rock we’re trying to push up our appointed hill. The original meaning of the word “busy” appears to be related to the word “anxious,” which in turn derives from the word “anger,” which originally meant “to squeeze or strangle.” In this sense, being too busy too much of the time for too long can eventually squeeze the meaning out of our days.

The problem with being busy isn’t that you’re doing something when you should be doing nothing. As long as you’re alive, there’s no such thing as doing nothing. The problem comes when busyness takes on a self-replicating pattern. We live on autopilot, and we seldom ask whether we’re still doing what we ought to be doing.

Shortly after the Asiana Airlines crash at the San Francisco Airport last December, an airline training video began circulating on blog sites frequented by pilots. In the video, the instructor points out that two-thirds of all airline accidents occur when the crew becomes too focused on their lists of tasks rather than on flying the plane. If an unexpected plane appears on climb-out, for example, pilots need to maneuver to avoid it. To do so, they usually try to reprogram their flight management computers.

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In a rapidly changing situation, however, and especially in a rapidly deteriorating one, there simply isn’t time to fly the plane this way. While your nose is in the keyboard reprogramming the computers, the instructor warns, your plane is still moving fast, going to where it is no longer supposed to be. What’s the answer? We’re captains and pilots, the instructor responds, not automation managers. If the situation you’re in deteriorates for any reason, turn off the autopilot, and fly the plane.

Once you’re on autopilot, it’s easy to relax and stop paying attention. Pilots do it all the time. So do the rest of us. We stop paying attention to our bodies: what we eat and how much we exercise. We stop paying attention to our minds: what we fill them with and what we spend our time thinking about. And we stop paying attention to our relationships: the people we care about and the communities of support we need.

The human equivalent of an autopilot, of course, is a habit. It’s what we do without thinking. Some habits play a constructive role in our lives: they enable us to do what needs to be done without having to think about it. Other habits play a destructive role in our lives: they enable us to do what we shouldn’t do precisely because we don’t have to think about them. Maybe we habitually reach for the chips or the Haagen-Dazs. Maybe we habitually pour a second glass of wine, or even a third. Whenever a habit takes us places we don’t want to go, it’s time to switch off the autopilot and take control.

As most of us know from hard experience, the process of breaking bad habits and replacing them with good ones poses one of life’s greatest challenges. The neural pathways in our brain are wired by patterned behavior. Whenever possible, our brains revert to established patterns of thought, feeling, and action. To change entrenched habits and behaviors, we literally have to change our brains to do so—rewire the synapses, create new neural nodes, and establish different pathways. One reason we often fail in our efforts to change our habits is that we underestimate the scale of the task.

In a new book titled Making Habits, Breaking Habits, psychologist Jeremy Dean says, “People consistently overestimate their ability to control themselves. This over-confidence can lead people to assume they'll be able to control themselves in situations in which, it turns out, they can't.”

The reason, Dean says, is that “self-control is a limited resource; it's like muscle strength: the more we use it, the less remains in the tank, until we replenish it with rest… When someone jostles you in the street and you resist the urge to shout at them, or when you feel exhausted at work but push on with your email: these all take their toll. The worse the day, the more the willpower muscle is exerted, the more we rely on autopilot.” Dean concludes, “It's crucial to respect the fact that self-control is a limited resource and you are likely to overestimate its strength. Recognizing when your levels of self-control are low means you can make specific plans for those times.”

In order to take control of our lives, we need to remember that self-control is a limited resource. As a result, we need to limit our need for willpower: keep the Haagen-Dazs out of the freezer and the chips out of the pantry. And we need to focus our need for willpower. We’re most likely to be successful if we change only one thing at a time.

Galen Guengerich, Ph.D., is senior minister of All Souls Unitarian Church in Manhattan and author of the book God Revised: How Religion Must Evolve in a Scientific Age.

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