Turning on the Autopilot
As we move through life, we create patterns. Habits and routines allow us to do oft-repeated tasks efficiently and are typically performed without conscious thought. For instance, consider your daily commute. Driving the same route, day after day, week after week, it is unlikely that you make many choices regarding which roads you should take. Once the car starts and is in motion, your brain’s auto-pilot kicks in to navigate you to your destination, which allows you to think about other things.
Let’s contrast this with a similar trip, but in a city you have never been to before. Now, the navigation portion of your auto-pilot has to turn off. You are looking at every street sign for reference. You are checking your GPS or, if you are feeling really primitive, a paper map (do they still make those?). Every step requires collecting data (What was that street I just passed?!?) and decision-making. Your conscious brain, by necessity, is fully engaged.
I will complicate this scenario a little more. Let’s give you a completely unfamiliar vehicle. You are used to a compact car with automatic transmission at home, but in this strange city, you find yourself driving a large SUV with standard transmission, so you need to be good at driving a stick. And for good measure, we will tie a large boat-trailer to your rear bumper. Now the very act of driving is unfamiliar. Can you start when the light turns green without stalling? Don’t forget to give yourself more room to slow down this heavy vehicle when lights turn red. And turns…did you just run over the curb? Was that mailbox on its side before you tried to make that turn?!?
So, we have two driving experiences—one that promotes engagement of the autopilot, the other that requires full engagement. Because the first example is part of a regular, routine experience, our brains automatically create a program that governs how we perform. If it didn’t, we would approach every drive to work, school or home as if we were in a foreign town driving a foreign vehicle. Every step would require careful evaluation and decision-making, and this would become exhausting!
These patterns aren’t limited to driving. In fact, any activity that we engage in on a regular basis will develop a habit or routine. How we wash the dishes, check email, watch TV, eat—even how we talk to those we love can become governed by unconscious patterns. Our days are filled with these patterns and so, as a result, our lives are filled with actions and behaviors devoid of conscious thought and choice.
Habits and Routines Over-Applied
What is the consequence of turning on the autopilot? How many times have you eaten something that you later regretted? Or spent time doing something like watching TV or surfing the web when you should have been doing something else? Or had a distracted conversation with your child or significant other, perhaps saying something that you wish you could take back?
Habits and routines are important for our brains to run efficiently. But over-dependence on them can compromise our ability to make choices in our lives and exert willpower towards those choices. In this article, I will explore how this impacts us—drawing from my own experience as well as the latest scientific research in the fields of psychology and neurophysiology—while also looking at how we can change some of these patterns to find greater happiness and fulfillment in life.
Finding the Patterns
The first step to exploring these patterns is finding them. Since much of what we do is done mindlessly, we aren’t really there to see the habits kick in, except perhaps afterwards. Being able to see these automatic patterns from beginning to end will help you better understand their structure, their triggers and, ultimately, how to reprogram them if necessary.
I will offer you an experiment that you can do in your own life. Start simply. Pick one behavior of yours that is frustrating for you or those around you. Let’s say you have poor impulse control with junk food. You get a craving, and before you know it, you have consumed a full box of Girl Scout cookies, or a bag of chips, or your third soda of the day.
When the craving hits you, sit with it. Resist the impulse, if only temporarily. In fact, it is best to start with resisting for a very short period of time for reasons we will explore later. Resist long enough for you to be able to observe your own discomfort. You don’t need to torture yourself. When you feel the urge to dig into that pint of Ben & Jerry’s Chocolate Chip Cookie Dough, wait five minutes before getting up and scrambling to the fridge. Use that five minutes to feel your body’s reaction to the cravings. Listen to your thoughts as you experience the discomfort as if you were eavesdropping on some else’s conversation. What kinds of things do you say to yourself? Do you justify the ice cream (“I had a bad day” or, “I had a great workout and earned it.”)? Do you admonish yourself? Don’t try to change what you are thinking or feeling. Just listen.
Listening to Your Habit
If you continue this practice, you are likely to find it easier and easier to increase the amount of time that you resist. Again, you don’t have to torture yourself. Simply set yourself a specific time for resistance and observe what happens. Have five minutes become ten. Then ten can become twenty, and so on. When you do eat the ice cream, observe the experience as completely as possible. If you can, slow down as you eat so that you can experience every bite. How does your body feel as you eat? What are your thoughts, positive and negative? Finally, sit with how you feel afterwards. Do you feel refreshed? Do you feel energized or drained? What kind of thoughts arise from eating the ice cream? Do you feel good about yourself? Again, don’t try to change anything, just observe.
The simple act of sitting with the habit of eating ice cream when you crave it—slowing down, observing your thoughts and how your body feels—can transform your understanding of the pattern. For some habits, the simple act of observing the autopilot is enough to gain control of it. Others need other strategies, which we will explore later. Either way, success in gaining more choice and control of your own behavior begins with simply observing yourself when you are most likely to turn your brain off.
Of course, you can choose something other than ice cream for your personal experiment. Pick something that makes sense for your life. It could be related to food, how you spend your free time, or the use of addictive substances like alcohol or cigarettes. We even develop emotional habits, so you can explore how you react to strong emotions. Road rage is a great example. People who get angry behind the wheel and express that anger through their driving are rarely mindful of what they are doing.
In our experiment, you choose to disrupt the impulse of habit with a moment of sitting with the discomfort of inaction. This is a very simple, yet powerful exercise that helps to develop a deeper understanding of your habits and even improves your general reservoir of will power.
Finding the Triggers for Your Patterns—My Relationship with Coffee
In addition to turning off the autopilot and engaging your awareness, this practice creates the opportunity to understand the triggers for your habits. I’ll give an example from my own daily experience. I have a very interesting relationship with coffee. If I have the right amount, my brain seems to function better. As a child, I was diagnosed as “hyperactive.” This was back in the days before ADD and ADHD. (To be clear, I think these are diagnoses that are extremely over-applied to kids these days, and I suspect that very few of the children exhibiting these symptoms are doing so because of biological issues. Reflecting on my own experience, I feel that there were far better ways to manage my behavior than through medication.)
On the advice of a doctor, I occasionally drank black coffee as a child. It had a calming, focusing effect on me. Oh, but I really hated the taste, hence the use of the word “occasionally” in the previous sentence. Getting me to drink it regularly was no easy task for my mom. As an adult, coffee has the same effect on me in small doses. If I need to sit down at my computer to get something done (like this article), having a cup of bitter joe makes a huge difference in my ability to concentrate and stay on task.
But now that I’m all grown up, I really love the taste of coffee. And it turns out, when it comes to this tasty beverage, I can have too much of a good thing. A little coffee helps me focus. A lot affects my sleep and causes inflammation. What this means is that drinking too much coffee will lead to my martial arts training and physical conditioning starting to damage my body and causing it to break down, rather than making it stronger.
When I am sitting down at my computer to work for a few hours, I make a conscious choice to drink a cup of coffee to help me be more productive. But I love the taste of coffee and how it makes me feel, so that mindful choice can easily turn into mindless habit which would have immediate impact on my health and ability to perform as a martial artist and as a teacher.
So I apply our little exercise to coffee. Before I have a cup, I check in with myself. Where I am in my consumption? If I have some, will it clear my head or will it hurt my body? If it is the latter, then I skip it and apply my will to focusing my dull mind onto the task at hand. Then I ask myself if my having a cup serves a practical purpose, or am I simply satisfying a craving. If the former, then I go ahead and have the cup. If the latter, I will delay, or sometimes even skip it altogether, with the intention of sitting with the discomfort and disrupting the pattern of craving that is trying to become a habit.
Practicing Something So Simple, Yet So Difficult
To be clear, this may sound well and good written on the page, but what I am describing is very difficult. I write this as someone in midst of a struggle. Sometimes, the cravings can be overwhelming. Sometimes I go to sleep at night anticipating that first tasty sip of bitter the next morning. And so it is a practice. This is not something you get down perfectly. If you find yourself mastering a habit or craving, you have just created momentum to tackle something bigger and more difficult in your life—whatever your “coffee” may be.
The practice of delaying gratification of an impulse can help give you some choice in what habits you acquire and what shape they take in your life. So what if you develop your awareness around a particular issue, but this particular “cup of coffee” has much too strong a hold of you? One option is what psychologists call a Ulysses pact.
A Ulysses Pact (The Greek Guy, Not the Union General)
In Greek mythology, the Sirens were dangerous creatures. Their song was said to be so beautiful, it drove men mad to hear it. Passing sailors, if caught by the sound of their voices, would be drawn mindlessly towards them, dooming them to perish on the rocky shores of their island.
Odysseus (known as Ulysses by the Romans) wanted to hear this song. So he had the men on his ship fill their ears with wax and lash him to the mast, before sailing closely past the Sirens’ home. Their instructions—no matter what he did, they were to leave him tied to that mast until they had passed out of range of the song.
In this way, Odysseus was able to hear the forbidden siren song without suffering the deadly consequences. He knew his judgment would change, so he made choices before his mind and will were weakened.
In this spirit, a Ulysses pact is an agreement you make with yourself now when you are not vulnerable to temptation that will apply to you later when conditions will be less favorable for good judgment.
The Siren Song of 80’s Music
For instance, my wife (Julie) and I went out to see an eighties band one night a few years ago. We were on a very tight budget at the time, but we were really looking forward to seeing these guys play. The simplest approach to such an evening would have been to put everything onto a credit card. But we knew that if we did that, it would be easy to lose track of how much we were spending. Plus, there was nothing to really limit us, so we were concerned that we may start having fun and end up spending money we would later regret.
So, before going out, we gave ourselves a set amount of cash to take with us. It was just enough for us to have a good time, but we made an agreement with ourselves that we would not spend more than that. This Ulysses pact allowed us to indulge ourselves while setting limits when our judgment was more aligned to our long-term needs.
Stronger Will through Larger (and specific) Vision
This brings us to another important strategy for exerting will-power over patterns. The desire to change habits and impulse comes from the recognition that gratification of cravings feels good in the short-term, but can come into conflict with long-term goals and needs. My cup of coffee tastes good right now. But if I drink too much, it damages my health and, as a result, interferes with my long-term goals as a martial artist. By keeping this larger picture in mind, it is easier for me to find the will-power to better address my short-term choices with coffee.
Finding a long-term understanding of a pattern you are dealing with is a personal process—what motivates one person can be very different from what motivates another. Let’s use the example of an ice cream craving. For one person, it may be enough to maintain a long-term vision around body image (“I want to look good in a bathing suit next spring”). For another, this may be the worst possible approach, filling him with feelings of guilt and shame, something we will later see can actually contribute to patterns we are trying to break. Perhaps for this person, he needs to consider the impact that being healthier would have on his relationship with his child (“I will be able to better play with my daughter, and will be around longer to see how she grows up if I am healthy!”). Perhaps another person will do better if there is a specific, active goal, for instance if she has plans to run a 5K race next month. After that race is run, she finds another target to keep her habits in check.
This latter goal is an example of why martial arts has been such a powerful tool for changing habits in my own life. There was always a new thing to learn, or a test to prepare for, or seminar to give that pushed me to rise to the occasion and cultivate healthier patterns in my life.
Threading the Needle towards Moderation
A final thought on managing habits and impulses in your life. There may be some things that you are seeking to reduce, but do not need to eliminate entirely. Like my cup of coffee, your desire for these things may drive you to consume more than is healthy if you do not keep it in check. If you do keep it in check, then you are in a position to enjoy the object of your desire, if only less frequently or in lesser quantity then your urges compel you to consume.
This may seem like something that would be just too uncomfortable to bear. Wouldn’t it be easier to just quit drinking coffee altogether rather than endure cravings when I can’t drink it? For some patterns, this may be the case. But for others, even some of the most difficult habits and impulses to manage, you may be increasing your overall level of happiness with those periods of delayed gratification.
Happier Living through Delayed Gratification
In one study, participants were asked to anticipate an upcoming vacation and evaluate how much pleasure they would get from the experience. Later, during their vacation, they were asked to evaluate their pleasure during the experience. Their self-reported pleasure was strongest in anticipation rather than direct experience of their vacation.
Additionally, researchers have applied the Savoring Beliefs Inventory (SBI), a tool for evaluating a person’s capacity for enjoying positive outcomes, to find that those who allow themselves to anticipate gratification beforehand tend to be happier in general.
Not only does anticipation of an experience tend to provide more pleasure than the experience itself, it gives you a double shot of pleasure. You can derive enjoyment from the anticipation and the experience itself.
I have definitely found this to be the case with my relationship to coffee. I now find myself enjoying the anticipation so much that when I finally sit down in front of my laptop and have that first bitter sip, the taste is that much sweeter.
Creating Good Habits from Unpleasant Things
But what if you want to create a habit out of a behavior you do not enjoy? What I have described up to this point is how to manage something that you enjoy so much, it could easily crowd out other things that are needed in your life.
But what if it is something that you want in your life, but have a hard time making yourself do? This requires willpower.
Willpower as a Muscle
We have been looking at how we manage the patterns and impulses we create in our lives; we will now explore willpower. There are several theories on how willpower works—some complementary, some contradictory—and this article will focus on one that sees power of will and impulse control as something to be trained as a muscle. This view holds that, like a muscle, we can strengthen our will through progressive resistance.
Using Resistance to Strengthen Your Willpower Muscles
For example, a fellow instructor once told me of a friend of his who was trying to sharpen his mental discipline. He had a pile of rocks in his backyard, and every day he would go outside and move one rock to a new pile. There was not a larger purpose to this activity—he wasn’t building anything or clearing out debris. It was simply an action that he was committed to doing, every day. It took very little time or effort, but it required him to tap into his will power in small increments on a daily basis. Essentially, each rock was a mental push-up that helped his mind grow stronger.
Physical exercise requires progressive resistance in order to grow stronger. If one push-up is easy, you do five. If five are easy, you do ten. By pushing your body past its normal capacity, it is forced to adapt. By adding a simple act of self-discipline to his day, this person pushed himself with each moved stone.
Muscles Can Get Exhausted—Same for Willpower
But you can overdo physical exercise, resulting in plateaus and even a loss of performance. If ten push-ups a day are difficult for you, pushing yourself to do twelve to fifteen on a daily basis is appropriate. If instead you decided to do fifty push-ups every day, you would likely find your body breaking down instead of growing stronger. In the same way, you can exhaust your willpower and self-discipline.
When we made renovations of the Dojang (martial arts school) a few years ago, Julie and I were very busy with the added workload. Long work days with no days off were rewarding, but also exhausting. As I got more tired, I could see my willpower diminish. Maintaining my physical conditioning was increasingly difficult, as was keeping to a healthy diet. In fact, I had to establish Ulysses Pacts with myself to insure I didn’t get too far off track. Once the major renovations were complete, I found myself feeling my normal strength of will and determination returning.
Some researchers have hypothesized that this dynamic is why we so often see political and religious leaders fall to ethical scandals. High achievers in professions that require so much mental discipline and the maintenance of such high ethical standards can undermine the force of will required to make good decisions under difficult circumstance—or perhaps just the strength to not make stupid decisions.
The Irony of White Bears
Mine is an obvious example, but there are other, more sneaky ways that our willpower can be undermined. One is the result of Ironic Process Theory. In the late eighties, a researcher exploring how people can suppress unwanted thoughts told participants to not think about a white bear. For most, this proved impossible. The more they tried to not think of a white bear, the more a white bear came to mind. For some, this lead to obsessive thinking about a white bear. This is an example of an ironic process—the more you try to suppress a thought, the more likely that thought is to arise.
The theory of why this happens describes two mental mechanisms working in opposition to each other. The first is unconscious and is vigilant for occurrences of the unwanted thought. When it recognizes the unwanted thought, it calls into action the second mechanism, a conscious effort to squash the thought—which of course requires thinking about the unwanted thought, which in turn fires the first, unconscious mechanism. As you can see, this can create a cascading reaction that can gain momentum that is difficult to break. This can then lead to cognitive exhaustion and a resulting loss in willpower.
Cornucopia of Carbohydrates—from Irony to Alliteration
Let’s say that you have decided to cut sweets out of your diet in an effort to lose weight. You walk past the break room at work and see that the leftovers of a birthday party for a coworker (which you had carefully avoided) and there is a pile of chocolate cake, cookies and sodas that are free for the taking (a scenario straight from my experience in the corporate world). You slow down and stare at the cornucopia of carbohydrates. With great force of will, you remind yourself of your diet, and slowly turn and trudge back to your desk.
Once at your desk, you find it difficult to work—your mind keeps returning to the sweets in the other room. Not only is this not productive time for you, but this is often where such commitments to a new, healthier diet fall apart. You began your diet by setting your will to focus on food that was good for you and to turn away from choices that move you away from your goals. But seeing those tasty snacks reminded part of your mind about how much you enjoy those foods, which in turn set off the warning bells of your unconscious that you were starting to think of forbidden foods, which then triggered your conscious mind to start grappling with those thoughts, which makes you think of those foods and their tastiness…and on and on. If this cycle isn’t broken, not only will you get no work done, but your mind will grow tired and take your will with it, ending with a belly full of cake and a heart full of regret.
Breaking the Obsessive Cycle
Recognizing this cycle when it happens is important so that you can interrupt it. I find that sometimes, the cycle can be interrupted simply by taking the larger view. Remind yourself of your long-term goals. Sometimes, you need a more physical disruption, like taking a walk or even doing some push-ups (I personally think push-ups will cure anything!).
Note: I think it is worth remembering that this dynamic has important implications for teachers and parents. A common mistake in giving behavior corrections to children to tell what you want them not to do (“Stop doing that!”). This can lead to the child wanting to do the behavior even more because of ironic processing. By telling a child what you want them to do instead, you give them a focal point for their behavior rather than a forbidden behavior to obsess over.
Negative Emotions Undermining Willpower
Similarly, we can exhaust ourselves on an emotional level. Often, we seek to change our habits in an effort to change something specifically about ourselves with which we are not comfortable. This is not inherently a problem. If one is overweight, it is natural and healthy to want to lose weight in order to feel healthier, to better enjoy one’s appearance and to feel more physically confident. But the process of dealing with that weight can lead to a multitude of negative feelings such as shame, embarrassment and anxiety. Grappling with these feelings can lead to the mental exhaustion that undermines willpower and leads to failure in making lifestyle changes that stick.
Applying the Action Philosophy to Yourself
Learning to apply Traditional Martial Arts Academy’s “Action Philosophy” to oneself can go a long way towards relieving this emotional cycle. At the end of classes, we recite this philosophy to consider, and to have patience and forgiveness (kids recite the similar, but simpler tenants of “think, breathe and be kind”). Having consideration for oneself may be as simple as recognizing that your current weight is the result of a lifetime of habits. They won’t change overnight, so you shouldn’t expect that of yourself. Having patience may mean that you acknowledge when you do fall short of your goals, and continue forward without condemning yourself. And forgiveness comes when you can accept shortcomings and let go of the negative feelings they can cause. If you cannot forgive yourself, that negative emotional energy will feed the never-ending and exhausting loop of ironic processing described earlier.
Of course, all of this is much, much easier to say than to do. The development and application of willpower requires practice over a full lifetime. The same holds true for delaying gratification and moderating “bad” habits. But these are ultimately rewarding practices that I recommend you embrace.