By Fiona Robertson
Recently, I’ve been reading about habit formation, and the notion of automaticity. That’s the point at which a habit becomes automatic; we find ourselves doing it unconsciously, or at least without much thought. Automaticity also seems to be a hallmark of compulsion or addiction; we come to our senses, as it were, when the ice cream is already half-eaten, or when we’ve smoked most of the packet. The habitual nature of compulsions makes them seem harder to break, of course.
A few years ago, researchers at University College London found that, on average, it took sixty-six days for a habit to become entrenched to the point of automaticity. The research participants were building up positive habits, such as drinking more water or eating a piece of fruit after lunch. For some, it took only eighteen days. For others, it was much, much longer – two hundred and fifty four days, or thirty six weeks. Happily, the researchers also found that the occasional missed day didn’t make any difference; we often imagine that if we skip even one day, we’ll end up back at square one, but this clearly wasn’t the case.
There’s apparently physiological truth to the saying, ‘old habits die hard’. In 2005, researchers at MIT reported that “important neural activity patterns in a specific region of the brain change when habits are formed, change again when habits are broken, but quickly re-emerge when something rekindles an extinguished habit — routines that originally took great effort to learn.” We’ve all experienced this in some way, either with an activity like riding a bicycle, or more detrimentally, with habits like smoking or drinking.
The thing that really caught my eye as I was reading about the London research was the scale used to measure automaticity. The Self-Report Habit Index covers twelve items, as follows:
Behavior X is something . . .
- I do frequently.
- I do automatically.
- I do without having to consciously remember.
- that makes me feel weird if I do not do it.
- I do without thinking.
- that would require effort not to do it.
- that belongs to my (daily, weekly, monthly) routine.
- I start doing before I realize I’m doing it.
- I would find hard not to do.
- I have no need to think about doing.
- that’s typically “me.”
- I have been doing for a long time.
As I pondered this list, I realised that the practices of natural rest and the Living Inquiries, particularly the compulsion inquiry, address various points in this list. Take number 3, for example. We know from our work that what we call the ‘ghost image’ is invariably involved in the movement towards the substance or behaviour, but it often goes unnoticed (which is precisely why we call it the ghost image). If we can spot the ghost image (the often subliminal visual cue that prompts us to use, ingest, or act), and look directly at it, we can become more conscious of our actions, thus reducing the habit’s automaticity. The inquiry question also helps: is this image commanding me or compelling me to do X?
Numbers 4 and 9 are also addressed directly by this work. ‘Feeling weird’ happens because we’ve used the habit to medicate or move away from uncomfortable feelings or emotions. By becoming aware of, staying with and further exploring the ‘weird’ feelings, we have less need to engage in the habit. We discover that there are other ways to be with uncomfortable feelings and energies, and we break the link between the two. Equally, we explore why it’s ‘hard not to do X’. Usually, it’s because if we didn’t do it, we’d have to feel or experience something that we don’t want to feel (or that we believe would be unbearable in some way). As we begin to open to whatever we’ve been closed to, to welcome these feelings and let them be, it feels easier to not do X.
Number 11 (that’s typically “me”) is also an area that we address head-on in Living Inquiries sessions. We discover the exact nature of this ‘me’ in relation to the habit (it’s usually a story of self-deficiency, of being unloved or not enough or incapable). We then look to see if we can find this ‘me’. During this process, we discover, look at, and feel all those parts of the seeming ‘me’ that have been hooked into the habit, further weakening the link between the two. As we become more aware of our beliefs, thoughts, sensations and feelings, we slowly move out of automaticity.
I was a smoker for many years, off and on. I gave up a number of times, sometimes for as long as two years, but still picked the habit back up again. The last time I stopped, however, I knew I’d never start again. It just felt different, and I couldn’t put my finger on why. On reading this research, and pondering the habit scale, I realised that until I finally kicked the habit, I’d identified myself as a smoker (even when I wasn’t smoking). It was when I no longer wanted to be a smoker that the habit stopped (with relatively little effort).
The Living Inquiries and Natural Rest give us the tools to address various aspects of automaticity, to interrupt the habit and to re-set the neural activity patterns. It occurs to me that if we’re also able to apply a little effort or commitment to changing our habits (not necessarily by going cold turkey or white-knuckling it, but by understanding that it takes time for new habits and patterns to be established) we can further increase our chances of being able to step out of those automatic, unwanted behaviours.
Fiona Robertson is a Senior Facilitator/Trainer of the Living Inquiries, and the co-creator of the Anxiety Inquiry. She loves her work, and she also loves writing, music (she used to be a bass player) and dancing (in the kitchen, mostly). She intends to live in a house by the sea one day. You can find out more about the Living Inquiries here: www.beyondourbeliefs.org and you can read Fiona’s writings here: www.whilstwalkingjack.blogspot.com. Feel free to email her at firstname.lastname@example.org