Habits: Good or Evil

Habits have a bad reputation.  To be fair, some bad habits have led to many ills in society today.  Smoking, over eating, etc. have killed off more people than wars in the last 50 years.  Ok.  It lends some credence to the “habits are bad” logic.

On the other hand, have you ever driven home and not remembered the trip?  Habits kept you on the road.  Habits helped you follow traffic laws.  Habits watched for other cars and habits knew the route home.  Looking at it this way, habits kept you alive while your mind was somewhere else.

Maybe we need to step back and really think about what a habit is before we decide if they are good or bad.  Basically, a habit is your mind trying to do efficiently a series of actions you take in response to a trigger on a regular basis.  Your mind is wonderfully powerful at recognizing patterns and connections between things.  It recognizes, without any conscious effort on your behalf, what you do in specific situations and then automatically prompts you to do the same thing in the same situation.  It is incredibly efficient, freeing your mind to do other things.  It is labor saving for your mind and, therefore, for you.  By this definition, habits actually are very good . . . . . it is just that sometimes the long term outcome of our habits are damaging.  That isn’t the habit’s fault.  It is our fault because our our initial decisions led to the habit.

A habit has three main components:  Trigger, action and reward.  The trigger is also sometimes called the anchor or the cue.  This is the situation that causes your mind to default to its labor saving device.  Think of Maslow’s dogs.  By ringing a bell just before he fed them, Maslow built a trigger (the bell) to the action of feeding (action and reward).  For you, the trigger can be something like “finished lunch” which leads to the action of visiting the vending machine.  The reward is the sugar rush for doing the action.  Rewards can be enjoying the chocolate bar after lunch or staying alive on the drive home.  Not normally discussed is a fourth component of a habit, that is the long term effect of repeated action.  The repeated action of checking your rearview mirror every few minutes will lead to a very different long term effect than the repeated action of eating a king sized bag of M&Ms after every lunch.

In life, success is more a result of consistent positive action over time than any decision or any short term rush of effort.  The very nature of habits make them a powerful tool for success.  By establishing habits that lead to good long term results, you will put in consistent positive action without much thought.  The trick is to determine what habits will lead you toward your definition of long term success, identifying appropriate triggers and rewards.

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