4 Practical Steps for Changing Mental Habits

At times we can find these patterns to be somewhat unproductive and, at others, wholly destructive. When confronted with either circumstance, we are also provided with an invitation to change.
10/06/2014 04:10pm ET | Updated December 6, 2014
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We are essentially a collection of habits. That sort of statement is not intended to minimize our complexity, but when human beings become "human doings" our thinking and behavior is informed more by structure and ritual than randomness. At times we can find these patterns to be somewhat unproductive and, at others, wholly destructive. When confronted with either circumstance, we are also provided with an invitation to change.

Do You Really Want to Change?

In taking up this invitation, the first thing we need to decide is if we actually want to change. Change comes when the consequences of our choices begin to outweigh the reward, which is something I often refer to as the "balance of consequences." Simply put, if what we're getting out of a situation -- good, bad or indifferent -- continues to be perceived as more beneficial than any negative outcome, it's quite likely we're going to continue making that choice. Should the scales tip and we feel the consequence has begun to outweigh the reward, we find ourselves at a crossroads that will either lead us to a new path or keep us treading the one we're on.

Identify What Needs Changing and Dig Deep

Once we've come to the conclusion that we do indeed want to change, we need to identify what needs changing. At first that may seem obvious, but negative habits typically have underlying motivations and these motivations are often murky, at best. Unpacking the underlying motivation for our negative thinking helps give our intention to change a certain resilience and sustainability. In unraveling the tangle of "what" and "why," we next dig deep and mindfully look at what's actually going on. This means stepping away and engaging what the wisdom teachings call witness consciousness; that objective, non-judgmental aspect of self that keeps us in and ego out.

Shifting Our Focus

Witness consciousness is a means for getting us out of our own way. With the ego out of play, we can take a good, hard, honest look at what's going on, rather than falling into the reflexive defensiveness that keeps us stuck. The witness allows us to see that "I'm bad with deadlines" is really a dodge for "I procrastinate because I'm afraid I will fail." That transparency is transformative, providing us with the opportunity to redirect our thinking from "I will fail" to "I will not fail." This shift in focus is central to rewiring the pathways in the brain, engaging what neuroscientists call neuroplasticity.

Think of our habits of thought -- and behavior -- like carts on a path. Every time the cart passes over the path, the tracks get deeper and deeper. If we decide to turn off the path and cross the neighboring field, eventually a new path gets established and the old one gets overgrown. This is exactly what happens with the neural pathways that make our habits, well -- habits. By shifting our focus and maintaining that shift, we create a new habit, essentially rewiring our brain and effecting change.

Maintaining the Shift: Reframing, Scripting and Rehearsal

Reframing expectations requires us to gather evidence that contradicts our worldview. One of my favorite examples of how to reframe expectations is my personal struggle with simple arithmetic. As a child I was told that I was bad at math and, as a consequence, developed a certain expectation about myself. As a result, I have been consistently challenged by adding a column of numbers or figuring out a tip. Here's a conundrum: Not only do I hold a degree in quantitative analysis, I have also taught that very subject to both undergraduates and graduate students. Once I consciously resolved myself to the positive evidence at hand, I recognized it did not match my false expectation and, lo and behold, the tip is no longer a struggle.

Another tactic for maintaining our shift in focus is something I call scripting. This essentially involves making a plan that interrupts our conventional thought process and ensuing patterns of behavior, taking us off the beaten path and into that neighboring field. This might mean developing a bit of inner dialogue that contradicts our reflexive thinking, or falling back on the evidence gathering motif to serve as a foil for establishing whether our perceptions have any real bearing in reality.

Whatever tactic we use, one of the most important elements involved in changing mental habits is rehearsal. In essence this means making a habit out of unmaking our habits. By establishing alternatives to our conventional thinking and sticking with them, that neighboring field becomes the new path by which we find our way back to ourselves and a basic nature uncluttered by false expectations and distorted self-perception.

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