Mental habits

Did you know that between 40% and 50% of everything we do each day is a habit? That’s right, almost half of every action you take you do without really thinking about it. Most of the time these habits form without much thought. You do something the same way a few times and before you know it, its become a habit and you always do it that way.

Researchers have discovered that every habit has 3 parts - the reminder, the routine and the reward. Every habit is initiated by a reminder or a trigger. For example the new text message notification sound on your phone. The next part is the routine or habit itself. For example opening the message and reading it. The final part is the reward. We need to get something positive out of the habit or we won’t keep doing it. For example the satisfaction of knowing who sent you the message and what it says, or getting rid of the (1) on the app.

People often associate habits with a physical action - like brushing your teeth or going for a run every day, however we can develop mental habits too. Some studies estimate that about 2/3 of our spontaneous thoughts are negative. The good news is if we choose to, we can work to change mental habits too. (Disclaimer: I am not a medical professional and you should seek help if you have thoughts, emotions or behaviors that you can’t control.) The model for changing a mental habit is reminder, reframe and reward.

All mental habits start with a reminder, for example the phone ringing or walking in to a bosses office. Then you have the mental routine, for example thinking “I hope the customer on the phone isnt going to shout at me” or “I hope my boss isn’t going fire me.” Our brains are actually wired to trigger the reward system that releases the feel-good chemical dopamine for negative emotions. Back when sabre tooth tigers wanted to eat us, there was an evolutionary benefit to this. In our safer modern world these negative emotions can actually hinder us more than help us.

The first step to changing a mental habit is to identify a thought pattern you want to change. For example “my boss wants to fire me.” Incidentally, your chances of changing a mental habit increase immensely if you focus on one at a time.

Then identify what triggers this thought pattern, for example being summoned to your bosses office or the customer service phone ringing. Now, take some time to reframe the thought pattern. Reframing is a technique used to create a different way of looking at a situation. For example instead of thinking “is my boss going to fire me” you can reframe it as “my last review was good and there is very little chance I am going to be fired.” Or instead of thinking “I hope the customer on the phone isn’t going to shout at me” reframe it as “most of our customers like us so chances are they are going to be happy.”

Finally you need to reward yourself every time you reframe the thought. You can smile to yourself, you can mark it on a sticky note or allow yourself to eat some chunk of chocolate. Research has shown that it takes an average of 2 months to create a new habit. Stick to it and don’t give up if you forget to reframe a thought pattern once or twice.