Opening to the Possibility

What Would You Do If You Knew You Couldn't Fail?

First Rerun: Deliberation, Choice and Developing Habits

So I’m running out the door in a moment.  But here is one of my early posts that seemed to be popular. It was good for me to read it again.  I needed the reminder.  Enjoy!

Each night before I retire, I make a Win List.  Some part of me thinks it is stupid, writing down things I am going to be doing anyway, but I’ve noticed that the element it introduces into the equation is deliberation.  I brush my teeth deliberately.  I give fresh water to the cat deliberately.  If I question whether or not I have engaged in the activity, then I know I wasn’t conscious, I wasn’t present when I did it, so I do it again.

The interesting piece is noticing how very many activities get accomplished on autopilot.  Now, autopilot isn’t necessarily a bad thing.  It is in fact the element that makes for efficiency and for those of you who have been paying attention efficiency matters to me.  It is the reason for lists.  It is the reason for systems.  It eliminates mistakes.  It saves time.  An experienced driver or a professional athlete does much of what he does on autopilot.  It doesn’t mean actions aren’t  deliberate, it just means that through repetition, the body has learned what to do and doesn’t it without the need to stop and think about each step.  In fact, the fascinating part, to me anyway, is that the brain will “chunk” activities.  All of these steps – 1,2,3,4,5 – become one step.  A recent article in Scientific American, published by neuroscientists Ann M. Graybiel and Kyle S. Smith, explored what turns these chunks into habits.  The chunking occurs as the brain reaches for greater efficiency but the habit part takes longer.  Some part of the brain (the infralimbic cortex, in case that sort of thing interests you) evaluates the activities and then has to decide whether or not it is a “keeper,” as they put; an activity that will then be committed to that part of the brain.  In their experiments, the scientists used optogenetics to inhibit habits from being formed, which was part of the point of the research paper: to determine how to eliminate the undesirable routines we’ve established.


The good news is that it seems there is an inner surveillance system that each us has that evaluates the appeal of chunks.  We all have free will.  Of course, it may not seem that way when we find ourselves compulsively enthroned in detrimental behaviors (addictions!), but I believe that being conscious of our actions and training ourselves to be more deliberate in our choices is a good first step.  By taking much of the unconscious bustle of our lives and turning the mundane into choice, we bring ourselves into the present moment and create an opportunity for gratitude.  And gratitude is the architect of pleasure, of appreciation for the choices we make.

So, while scientists may not yet have developed a magic pill to interrupt and eliminate our bad habits, we can still choose to become present to our lives. We can notice where we go into autopilot and becomes present to the choices that become the fabric of our lives. habit



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