3 secrets to changing your habits

Daniel Goleman
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With the new year comes an opportunity to reboot our habits – drop the negative ones and start better ones.

It doesn’t matter if the habit in question is for your health – say eating better – or getting on more effectively with folks on the job – say, listening better. The basic steps are the same.

The first fact to face is that our habits are largely invisible to us. That is, though we may know we need to eat or listen better, our repertoire of habit resides in a part of the brain that is ordinarily off-limits to our awareness. The home of habits is a structure deep in the bottom of the brain called the basal ganglia.

Our brain stores our habits there so we don’t have to pay conscious attention to the countless good habits that keep us going – everything from how to brush our teeth to what not to say to your boss.

That works well ordinarily. The brain needs to conserve energy this way, and it would be overwhelmingly distracting to have to figure these sequences out each time. But the problem comes when certain habits don’t work for us. Those are the ones we want to target for change.

Freedom from Self-Defeating Habits

As Tara Bennett-Goleman specifies in her book Mind Whispering: A New Map to Freedom From Self-Defeating Habits, the first step in changing them has to be noticing them in the first place. That means not letting them just go by on automatic, but becoming mindful of them. You can do this in two ways: getting familiar with thetriggers that start the sequence, and noticing the way the habit operates.

This sounds easy, but it requires a particular way of paying attention: mindfulness. As Tara and I will demonstrate in our upcoming workshop, mindfulness lets us notice parts of our mental life that typically go by invisibly – especially our habits.

Once we bring these into awareness, we can decide how to change them as they are occurring, or are about to. Mindfulness de-automatizes habits – while we used toreach for that soothing candy bar after an upsetting call from that person who drives us crazy, with mindfulness we can spot the habit trigger the moment our caller I.D. tells us who is ringing.

And finally, we can replace that dysfunctional habit with something that works better for us. Instead of hours immobile in front of a digital screen, we can take thosehealthy one-minute exercise breaks. Rather than cut off what a direct report tells us and impose our own agenda, listen fully to what she has to say, and then respond.

Recognize the Trigger Source

Here’s the big secret to all this: Different states of mind make us more or less susceptible to triggering our bad habits. When we’re in an anxious mode, for instance, we’re most likely to eat that fattening bag of chips or cut off that other person. Recognizing how these states, or modes of being, take us over can help us track our habits better.

So the three simple steps are:

  • Bring mindfulness to the mode and habit.
  • Replace the bad habit with a better response.
  • Practice at every natural opportunity.

Shifting habits works better with a fuller understanding of the brain systems underlying both our habits and how mindfulness helps us manage the brain – and how to rewire.

May the new year be full of your best habits.

This article is published in collaboration with LinkedIn. Publication does not imply endorsement of views by the World Economic Forum.

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Author: Daniel Goleman lectures frequently to business audiences, professional groups and on college campuses. A psychologist who for many years reported on the brain and behavioral sciences for The New York Times, Dr. Goleman previously was a visiting faculty member at Harvard.

Image: A woman is silhouetted next to a solar panel display in Tokyo March 2, 2011. REUTERS/Yuriko Nakao.

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