Why Habit Change Requires the Wisdom of Asking Questions

We all have habits that we would like to change. Of course, there are some things we do habitually that we are not even aware negatively affect us; and, conversely, there are habits we could pick up that we do not realise could drastically improve our lives. Nonetheless, we all have thoughts of “I need to do this” and “I can’t keep doing this” floating around in our heads. Attaching value to positive habits which serve one’s physical and mental well-being is foundational, but an improved life does not manifest by constant promises to ourselves. For ideas and beliefs to be truly fulfilling aspects of one’s life, they need to be consistent; and that comes from relevant action.

Moreover, as much as we don’t want it to be the case, changing one’s habits does not happen suddenly and easily, by sheer force of will – as if we can have an epiphany about the full picture of our vices and then the next morning wake up forever transformed. A habit stays true to its meaning. They are patterns of thought and behaviour which have been repeated so often that their future repetition happens automatically, with seemingly little room for volition and control. The habit in question is wired deeply in our brain, so it takes an understanding of how the brain makes (and breaks) habits in order to change them.

Although it may seem like we have zero control over the unfolding of our habits, the act of will does not completely vanish – otherwise, no one would be able to change how they think and behave. Understanding how the brain operates is useful. There is also a plethora of principles, advice and tips on how to diminish negative habits and enhance positive habits. I cannot claim that I have found the most effective, gold-standard method for self-improvement since I have not experimented with enough methods or lived long enough to even begin to confidently advise in this respect. What I can speak honestly about is what has worked for me personally. So I would like to suggest that the process of asking oneself simple questions – and writing these questions down – can be a surprising source of self-growth.

There is one question in particular that I have been asking myself recently that has allowed my will to elbow its way into my everyday life, allowing me to (gradually) change my habits in a very reassuring way. Whenever I find myself with the compulsion to engage a negative habit, or as soon as the idea pops into my head to do something positive, I ask myself, “Will doing this make me feel better or will it make me feel worse?”

Clearly, it is a very simple question. And it may seem like a pointless thing to ask oneself. But I believe that the ease at which it can bring about change lies in its simplicity, as well as the fact that its underlying incentive is self-care. It is vital to ask oneself the question with a certain intention; namely, with the aim of looking after oneself by prioritising certain ways of thinking and living. For example, if we’re about to eat a meal which we know makes us feel awful overall, but which is immediately satisfying, the answer to the question is ‘Worse’, not ‘Better’. It stands to reason that negative habits are thoughts and behaviours which make us feel worse overall, while positive habits make us feel better overall.

It is important to ask the question honestly, forthrightly and ultimately from a place of kindness towards oneself. If we are unkind towards ourselves, the question could be internally asked in a forced and inauthentic manner (or perhaps more likely, not asked at all). If you are kind towards yourself, however, you will see why the question is valuable and, given your heavy mental baggage, needs to be asked. When asked with a true intention of self-compassion, the question is answered matter-of-factly, and healthy decision-making and action follows because obviously, this is in your best interest.

It’s worth highlighting that it was only when I wrote down this question that the question began to really make its way into my awareness in my daily life. In the same way that taking notes when we are revising for an exam aids the recollection of information, writing down what is important to us achieves something above and beyond just thinking about it. I’ve previously written about the undervalued therapeutic potential of writing. It isn’t only cathartic, in the way that talking is, but – like talking – it involves taking a thought, making it something a bit more concrete and putting it ‘out there’ in the world, so it’s easier to look at and be digested.

Not only did I write down the question, but I created two columns, one listing all the things that make me feel better, and the other listing all those habitual thoughts and behaviours that make me feel worse. It’s a sizeable list and I’ve been adding more to both. I think writing all of these habits down and being able to refer back to them facilitates that self-reminding process that happens just before you decide to think or act negatively, or when you’re already manifesting the habit. Over time, it will become easier to stop a habitual pattern in its tracks and say to yourself, “I could easily procrastinate some more, but I know from experience I feel worse in the long-term when I do, so nope, I’m not going to do that.” Alternatively, when the idea to think or act positively becomes apparent, the written note can help to remind yourself that you will feel better overall by acting on it and overriding the immediate inclination to shy away from it.

This approach is by no means a silver bullet for changing one’s habits. It’s just a tool that I’ve found to be beneficial whenever I’ve used it successfully. Which is probably less frequent than when I fail to apply it. But that’s okay. It can take a long time, with a great deal of effort, to shape habits for the better. It’s a process that requires practice, discipline and the utmost patience with oneself.

If you write down that ‘ruminating about X’ makes you feel worse and you end up doing it, this isn’t necessarily ‘progress ruined’. The problem is not making mistakes, but making the mistakes without the calm and ready acceptance that mistakes are made, and saying to yourself that in the next opportunity for improvement you will try again. And since we’re talking about habits here, it’s very likely that you’ll forget this whole self-care business and fall into the same negative pattern. There’s no need to be hard on yourself when this happens. Maybe today you forget about the self-caring reminder, but maybe tomorrow you won’t. You could interrupt the indulgence of that negative habit with the simple question sooner than you’ve done before.

Remember: small progress is still progress and it leads to big changes over time.

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