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Our unconscious habits set us up for success

Ninety percent of the time you're walking around in an unconscious state, living from a way that your habits and behaviours are guiding you towards. Instead of living in a conscious awareness state, you're actually doing the things that have been ingrained through you through habits and behaviours that you competed over and over again.

Now, just let that sink in for a moment.

If we've got lots of bad habits that we're allowing to sink in to our unconscious behaviours, and we're living from an unconscious brain, where is that leading us?

From a primal perspective, this ability to behave in an unconscious way served us really well. Your brain has got so many things to do and it is processing so much information all at once.

A computer has nothing over your brain. So much sensory information, so much information about the whole body.

What it does to help you to become more efficient is to create this roadmap of actions it can take where it doesn't have to think about it anymore, it just happens automatically. Just like when you started to drive a car, everything feels a little bit wonky. There's so many different things to do and there's gears and there's these all these things you have to be consciously aware of. Now think about now how you drive. All of these things just become really natural and they're no longer things you have to consciously think about. It's the same with walking. When you first started to walk, there was so many things and now you just do it. So all of these patterns and behaviours are ingrained within our body.

Habits are contagious

Now, these habits often as I just said, can be formed all the way from childhood. So there can be so many of these things, these behaviours that we do that, we don't even realise that we do, it's just a thing that we do and this can be for good or it can be for bad.

We can actually catch habits as well. Have you ever found yourself in a house watching your neighbour mowing their lawn and decide that you're going to mow the lawn too? Then going forward you tend to mow the lawn every time they mow the lawn? Then all of a sudden you have this habit of when you see that person, mowing the lawn that you also know the lawn. This habit, and other regular behaviours we have, can be formed for so many reasons such as social reasons like in the case of the lawn mowing. In this instance the reason is you want to have a nice lawn like the person next to you, but this habit is informed and subsquently formed by the people we surround ourselves with. So we really need to be careful of the people that we surround ourselves with, the people that we show up to all the time.

Perhaps that's not just from a face-to-face perspective but also on a social media level as well. What are we actually exposed to? And is this affecting the way that we behave, the way that we create our habits and the way that we show up in the world?

Why do we fail when trying to form new habits during stressful periods?

How often do you begin a new habit, or start a new thing and then fail? It's so frustrating to try to do something new and it not work. There's reasons for this.

What I want to do is to break down some of these reasons so that these habits begin to stick.

What happens in your brain when you are stressed is that your prefrontal cortex, the part that's responsible for making our decisions, actually starts to shut down. From a primal perspective this is a good thing because if you're getting chased by a lion, or a tiger, or a bear, or something like that, you don't have time to be worried about why they're chasing you, you don't think to yourself "are they chasing me cos my bum looks big?" You've just got to get out of there. So the thinking brain starts to shut down.

But what happens when we try to create new habits when we're in a stressful time? I hear this all the time, that my clients say "I was going really well, and then I went to through a really stressful period, and then it all fell apart. And now, I forgot everything."

This is because over time, you've wired your brain to do the things that it does on a regular basis so it doesn't have to think about it consciously, and then you're trying to rewire it to do this new thing, but stresses come up and your thinking brain, your decision brain has shut down, so you've automatically gone back to that ingrained habit that you don't have to think about. Then, you end up beating yourself up about it and your inner dialogue starts telling you "I'm not good enough, I'm crap, I try to start new things all the time but it never works out for me." However, what has actually happened is a survival mechanism. So what we've got to start to do is start to start to look at ways that we can reprogram the brain in a gentle way.

Once you understand how this works you can see that really successful people do this without perhaps even thinking about it.


If we start to think about the way that our habits are formed, sometimes you don't even realise that that's a habit. Say, for example, you have a cue from the body that signals hunger, and in response your body tells you to go and get some food, and then you feel better. This is how we create a cue --> response --> reward scenario, and this is how we start to reprogram the brain.

There's something that triggers you (the cue), so you go do the thing (the response), and then you get that feedback back (reward).

But, the brain is a creative genius. It can start to link the reward sensation to other negative cues. For example, if you get the cue that you're feeling crappy, for whatever reason, your brain remembers that food made you feel better, so it's going to cue a hunger trigger to try and fix whatever other problems might be present. And you can, all of a sudden, fall into these negative habit forming patterns. You've got this primal thing working towards helping you, but then you also have this emotional response that's also starting to derail you.

What we can start to do in these stressful times is start to become more aware of what you're doing. When you get that cue, when you can be bit more conscious of what you're doing, you can be a bit more present in the moment and respond more from your frontal lobe and switch to a mode that is more aware of what you're doing right in that moment.

You can start to see those habits forming or see the habits that you have already formed start to take over, and when you see them you can start to treat them. You can smile at them with an "ah-huh I see what's going on here." So instead of looking for that bit of chocolate, or binging on Netflix or whatever it is that you're trying not to do, you can instead breatk that habit by replacing it with what your body actually needs.

Changing your cues to be present in the moment

Sometimes to make this effective your body needs a physical cue that acts as a stop switch. A breathing technique that I use as my "stop switch" is a double sniff and a sigh. So whenever I find myself in that situation where my habit formed impulses are threatening to take over but I know it's not actually what my body needs or taking me towards my bigger goal (it might feel good in the moment but it's not serving my larger goals) I use this technique. I repeat the sniff, sniff sigh five times and it just helps to reset me and bring me back into the present. From there I can think about what my bigger goals might be. So if my bigger goal is, for example, sleeping better but the habits I've formed are detrimental to that goal (such as eating sugar before bed) then the eating of chocolate isn't going to serve me.

Having an idea of what our bigger goals are, and what are the smaller things that are getting in the way of those goals, means we can assess our habits and unconscious behaviours clearly when we start to take that time to step back and be present or consciously aware of our behaviours. Those small behaviours are changeable and it's the small things we do every day that will set us up for success.


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