“You know how people have these little habits that get you down?” ~ Chicago (The Musical)
Or, as defined by my dictionary:
Habit (n): A thing done often and hence easily, a usual way of doing things; an acquired behaviour pattern regularly followed until it has become almost involuntary
“What’s the difference between a conscious and an unconscious habit?”
This was a question in my head at 7 o’clock in the morning recently. (Yes, I know, I think too much). So let me give you some things to think about:
The question was sparked off by my shampoo bottle. With my last bottle I knew that one pump would supply the perfect amount of shampoo for washing my hair. This bottle is the same style, the shampoo the same, the mechanics of getting the shampoo out the same. So why with this bottle do I pump it twice? Nearly every time I have done it, realised what I’ve done and questioned myself. So now it has been become a habit. One that I don’t want, as it’s wasting shampoo and is no good for my hair! Yet I created this habit out of my own actions and now I need to apply myself consciously to stop it.
I was also talking with an acquaintance recently who has undergone a change in working conditions, putting them back into a working situation they hadn’t been in for a few years and, since they had been there, they had stopped smoking. Without realising it, in this new situation, they found they had bought a packet of cigarettes and been smoking. The realisation only hit several hours and several cigarettes after buying the packet in the morning. The change of circumstances, the return to a once familiar environment, had caused their subconscious to kick in and a previously kicked habit returned.
Both of the above need a conscious mind to take action to alter the behaviour. But the ways they arose are quite different. I don’t know how my acquaintance first started smoking but then that could also illuminate further how habits develop.
Conscious habits are a different matter. I know very little of where they come from but I believe them to be the things we impose upon ourselves. I have conditioned my brain to believe that I think with a pen in my hand or, at the very least, tucked behind my ear; that I hear things better when I can see them; that I need to do certain daily tasks in a certain order. There is a wealth of evidence to show my brain still functions where there isn’t even a pen near me, I can hear the radio just fine in the dark, and it makes no difference to the tasks if they are done in a different order. But it does make a difference to me. I want that pen, I want that visual link, I want things done a certain way so I feel out of sorts if these things don’t happen. Despite the clear evidence to the contrary.
Exercise, for most people, is a conscious habit; going for a run, going to the gym, it’s not likely that this happens unconsciously. It may become a routine but it is also a conscious habit. Setting a physical challenge to do something for hundred days does not mean it has slotted into your unconscious brain so completely that you will continue beyond the hundred days without conscious thought. The mind has to be open to let something in. Which, for me, means to go the gym is a conscious habit that I work on. But I can easily find myself walking varied and longer routes to and from places because walking is in my subconscious; my body is happy to walk and my mind is distracted by other things. Walking also just happens to be an excellent form of an exercise.
So are our habits quirks of the brain to help or hinder us through the day? Do we condition ourselves create mental obstacles or stimulus? The simple answer from me is that I don’t know. There’s a lot I don’t know and the more I learn the more I realise this. I don’t think, when it comes to habits, be they conscious or unconscious, that anything is as simple as it first appears.
However I am sure of one thing; you can’t change other peoples’ habits. No matter how much they love you, no matter how many times you ask them; their habits, their mental quirks and ticks are theirs and theirs alone. Developed by them and therefore only changeable by them. If someone has got one of those habits that gets you down then consider your own response to it instead of trying to change them. For, as exercises in futility go, that one may well be just top of the tree.
Interested in your thoughts, as always. Drop me a line on a comment box-shaped postcard.