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What To Do About Bad Habits: The Power of Awareness

Updated on April 24, 2012

We go through a lot of life on auto-pilot. Making things automatic and routine are both essential parts of making it through life (we have large parts of our brains dedicated to just these phenomena), but what about when something important goes unnoticed?

What if, over time, we form a routine where we act thoughtlessly toward someone we like? Imagine a friend reacting positively to an insult, so over time you grow just a little bit cruel. This is something that you are not doing on purpose, but the person ends up feeling hurt. What if you had become aware of this problem earlier in the chain of events?

What if she had noticed the urge to bite her nails before she started? What if she had noticed the circumstances in which she gets that urge?
What if she had noticed the urge to bite her nails before she started? What if she had noticed the circumstances in which she gets that urge? | Source

Making things hard on yourself

Suppose that you start berating yourself every time you fail at something. You're trying to make a sale at work, or to achieve a new personal best in the gym, or to get a date with the little red-haired girl from school. While being a little self-disciplined is good, what if it progresses into self-abuse every time you try and fail? What incentive do you have to even continue trying? Again, this could have been stopped if it had been noticed earlier in the chain.

Finally, consider self-destructive personal habits. Eating junk when you're tired. Craning your neck when you perform a certain job function (any hair stylists or dental hygienists in the crowd?). Being late for social engagements. Where did these come from, and what can we do now that they're well-established?

Enter "awareness"...

Happily enough, what you do with habits now can help you stop new bad habits from forming. The answer to both problems is increasing your awareness. Awareness is the spotlight of attention that darts from place to place, from concept to concept during the parts of your day that you're conscious. It can also be thought of as the triggers that make that spotlight swing. For instance, you are conditioned to be highly aware of your name: while you might not be listening to every word of conversation in a room (your spotlight is currently elsewhere), your ears will perk up if your name is uttered.

Now, think back to one of the bad habits that resonated with you. Let's say you have the nasty habit of self-recrimination after every failure at work. This certainly isn't helping you. It's making you anxious about future calls, it's draining your forward momentum, and, ultimately, it's making you hate work. It's extremely powerful, but are you even aware that you're doing it? Whatever the habit may be, look back and identify it, then ask, do I tend to notice it: when I bite my nails? When I overeat after work? When I let the dishes sit in the sink too long? If you're aware, when do you become aware of the problem? I'm betting it's well after you could do anything about it.

Getting started

I don't have any involved exercises for you this time. We'll work on making awareness itself a habit in future posts (meditation!). For the time being, I want you to become aware of your lack of awareness in a given situation. That's it. Once you've done that, consider how you might bring that awareness to a point earlier in the chain of events. If you have ragged nails and are now aware that it's a problem, consider planning on noticing the nail-biting as it happens next time. Don't be mean to yourself about it, just notice it. Make it an awareness trigger. "Oh, hey, I'm biting my nails again."

Know what you do next? "Hey, I noticed it this time. Good for me!" Give yourself a pat on the back. "Oh, hey, I'm slouching. I noticed it!" (pat pat). "Huh, I was just being kind of mean to myself. Good for me for noticing!" I'm not telling you to drop everything and change your behavior as you notice it. You can, if you're able, but it might require you to bring your awareness to a point even earlier in the chain ("Oh hey, I noticed my nail-biting within the first few seconds. Nice job, me!" and eventually "I'm feeling that way that always leads to nail-biting. Wow, I can't believe I noticed that!"). While it might be hard to change something that you're actively invested in (being angry, feeling sorry for yourself, drinking a bit too much), imagine how much more leverage you have over your own actions when you act early.

So now that you're developing a "noticing skill"...

The upshot? This "noticing skill" generalizes. It oozes out to other areas of your life. As you become good at bringing awareness to earlier events in the chain of habits that you want to change, you'll get better and better at doing this for other habits. Eventually, you might find your awareness broadening to self-destructive behaviors that you hadn't even considered bad habits. That's all I want you to take away from this now. Again, no big exercises. Just notice stuff.

Thanks for reading, and, as always, be kind to yourself.

Do you run on auto-pilot?

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    • Simone Smith profile image

      Simone Haruko Smith 5 years ago from San Francisco

      I love that your Hubs always leave me excited to improve my life. I've been working on self awareness for ages, and I this particular focus on bad habits is great. It's surprising how easy it can be to kick them when they're caught early, like you say, but even awareness of long-time bad habits can help to cut them down to size :D