Our minds are designed to learn. In the first place, they are like empty cupboards with lots of space to store things in and they absorb everything. So as small children, we find it easy to place things: language, behaviour, experience.
Along the way we collect lots of useful stuff that comes to have its own place in our mind, and that we can find without any effort. We don’t have to think about how to talk to others, how to act and react in common situations, how to deal with most things that crop up in our everyday life. It all becomes habitual.
Unfortunately, we also collect stuff that’s less than useful, those habits that don’t serve us well. It is relatively easy to identify these as we get older, such things as: procrastinating and thereby putting ourselves under unnecessary pressure; making others wrong to give ourselves an excuse; ignoring problems until they’ve grown like Topsy; under- or over-eating – there are so many not useful habits we can develop!
This is not because we are stupid or careless or bad. When we are young, we aren’t able to discriminate between the useful and less useful stuff. We collect it all and find a place to store it in our mind. And that’s why it’s hard to unlearn. We have to consciously clear out that space of not useful habit and fill it with a more useful one instead.
How do we do that? A bit at a time. We can’t just decide to empty that shelf, because it will refill automatically with the same type of stuff if we leave it empty. We have to begin to replace it with something more useful, until that space is so full of the new habit that it relabels itself and goes on to automatic.
So if you want to change a less than useful habit, you start by deciding on what would work better for you. Then you identify where or when you could easily use the new behaviour or approach instead.
When you come to that identified place where it would be easy to change the habit, take a breath before you launch in, to remind yourself that you want to do something different.
Once you have become used to using the new way in those circumstances, you can extend it to more situations. Gradually it becomes your default behaviour and the shelf gets relabelled.
It’s hard to unlearn, but it’s well worth it. Every small step towards a more useful habit is a step towards an easier and more enjoyable life.