What Drives Your Habits?

The Power of Focused Attention

Posted May 15, 2011

As I've been talking with people about my upcoming book, You Are Not Your Brain, I've received some very insightful and interesting questions. A recent one, which seemed self-evident but wasn't, was "what kinds of habits are we talking about and how easy is it to change them?" As I began to answer this question, I realized there really are two different kinds of "habits" we engage in. The first are those habits that bring us pleasure, that just feel good, and do not have an emotional component. The second are those habits borne out of anxiety, stress or a desire to not feel so bad about ourselves, a situation or our lives. In both cases, we are trying to feel "better," but the actual experience is quite different. 

Consider these two scenarios: 1) someone who eats her favorite snack whenever she is stressed out versus 2) a person who gets pleasure out of checking his email all day long. In isolation, those actions do not seem that bad or problematic. But what if the woman eating food whenever she is stressed finds that she is gaining weight and actually feels worse about herself and the man checking email ends up wasting so much time that he has to stay late every night, thus causing him to miss out on other important aspects of his life?

What binds these habits together and drives our behavior is the brain and how it works. No matter whether we are trying to alleviate anxiety or feel pleasure, our brain does the same thing: it compels us to act in a very rote, automatic fashion without much awareness of what we are doing. We act because a certain feeling comes over us or a specific set of events occurs. And, even if that action is not helpful to us, we still do it because our brain is telling us we must.

How does this happen? Whenever we repeatedly focus our attention on something, including performing the same action over and over, we essentially "teach" the brain that this is something important - something to prioritize. This causes the brain to strengthen the pathways associated with that action, making it all the more likely the brain will "choose" that pathway the next time you are feeling stressed, bored, restless or anxious. What's worse, in the case of pleasure, it also ramps up the activity in the associated brain regions, making the urges, impulses or desires associated with that action stronger. One way to think about it is this: brain pathways that are not paid attention to are small and not chosen often, like a small country road, whereas pathways that are used all the time are large, like a 6-lane superhighway.

If the biology driving unhealthy habits is the same, then you might assume that all habits can be broken in the exact same way. In some respects this is true, but in others it is not.  This is where the why of your habit comes in. If you are dealing with a habit that solely brings you pleasure and is not wrapped up in emotions, then this habit likely will be somewhat easy to break. The key is coming to realize how much the habit is hurting, not helping, you. However, if you are dealing with a habit that alleviates anxiety or elevates your mood when you are upset with yourself, this is much more complicated and requires considerably more time, attention, insight and understanding.

The good news is that in most circumstances you can retrain your brain to make it work for you, rather than against you. In essence, you can change the unhelpful 6-lane superhighway into a country road and vice versa. Your secret weapon: your mind and how you focus your attention. Obviously, your brain is simultaneously the problem and a big part of the solution; however, your mind is the answer. This is why my co-author and mentor of 12 years, Dr. Jeffrey M. Schwartz, always says: The power is in the focus!

In the next few articles, I will talk about more about the biology behind unhelpful brain messages (what we call deceptive brain messages), mindfulness and learning how to focus your attention in helpful ways with our Four Step method.